How Netflix Wants to Rule the World: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at a Global TV Network

iron fist
Courtesy of Netflix

The critics may not have fallen in love with “Iron Fist” — but that didn’t stop Netflix from inviting journalists from around the world to its offices in Silicon Valley this week for the global launch of the company’s latest Marvel series.

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Dubbed “Netflix Lab Days,” the event included a number of talks from executives and engineering leaders about the work that goes on behind the scenes to make and distribute shows like “Iron Fist” to the company’s 93-plus million members.

One common thread throughout these talks was Netflix’s international reach, and the technology and business decisions necessary to run the streaming service as a new type of global internet TV network.

Here are five interesting tidbits about Netflix’s path to world domination:

Programming for a global audience

Netflix doesn’t just produce shows in an increasing number of countries; the company also approaches its productions with its global audience in mind. One early example for this was “Narcos,” the show about Colombian drug czar Pablo Escobar. Director Jose Padilha suggested his idea to write “Narcos” as a bilingual drama in which every Columbian character speaks Spanish in his first pitch to Netflix, said Netflix Original Series VP Cindy Holland.

A bilingual show for global audiences: Merch for Narcos at Netflix HQ. Janko Roettgers / Variety

“If we had just been a U.S. television network, we would have said: You are crazy,” she recalled. But with an existing footprint in South America, and plans to launch globally in the following years, that idea actually made a lot of sense. “It allowed us to take a risk and do something different.”

Global content recommendations that defy stereotypes

Netflix used to recommend content based on the region that its users were in, following the general school of thinking that subscribers in South America probably would prefer different fare than subscribers in Canada. But upon looking closer at the data, the company realized that this wasn’t actually true, said Netflix VP of Product Todd Yellin. “We find that to be greater and greater nonsense, and we are disproving it every day.”

The Netflix world map: Since early 2016, Netflix is everywhere but in China, Syria and North Korea. Janko Roettgers / Variety

Instead, Netflix is now dividing up its subscriber base into 1,300 taste communities, which are solely based on past viewing behavior. Each and every user can belong to multiple such communities, and all of these communities spread across the globe. Sure, Yellin admitted, German comedians may be more popular in Germany, but there’s also plenty of users in the U.S. who turn into their shows. “A big part of personalization is finding taste communities globally,” Yellin said.

Striking partnerships with ISPs and TV operators worldwide

In order to get in front of new customers around the world, Netflix has increasingly been striking partnerships with TV operators around the world. After debuting a Netflix app on a cable box with Virgin in the U.K. in 2013, the company now has similar agreements with 60 operators around the globe in place, according to the company’s global head of business development Bill Holmes.

Netflix caching servers around the world. Green dots represent servers within ISP networks, orange dots stand for caches at major internet exchanges. Janko Roettgers / Variety

But Netflix isn’t just teaming up with operators to get onto more screens. The company has also for some time offered internet service providers around the world free caching servers to offload Netflix’s streaming data.

That’s increasingly important as Netflix is going global: Netflix’s international traffic already exceeds all of the capacity of the world’s undersea fiberoptic cables, said Netflix Content Delivery VP Ken Florance. “If Netflix was serving all of its traffic from here, all of Netflix’s traffic would exceed the total internet capacity.”

Learning the world’s languages

When Netflix began to work with international rights holders, it often got translated subtitles that weren’t exactly up to par. Now that the company is distributing its originals around the world, it is itself working with thousands of translators, said Chris Fetner, the company’s director of content partner operations. The international subtitling of Chelsea Handler’s talk show alone required 200 translators.

Come back, absent pigeon: Examples for subtitles that weren’t up to par for Netflix. Janko Roettgers / Variety

Along the way, Netflix has also improved its own internal translation tools. “Three years ago, we had a blanket style guide for all languages,” Fetner said. These days, Netflix is working on a constantly updated Wiki, often tapping into a pool of translators and academics to make sure that key terms and phrases don’t get lost as international audiences tune into Netflix’s shows.

To further build a stable roster of global translators, Netflix even developed its own online test, dubbed Hermes, which the company launched to the translation community this Friday. Translators can use that online tool to get scored by the company as a way to get approved for future projects.

Going local, country by country

Netflix rolled out globally a little over a year ago, and has since been available in almost every country of the world, save for China, Syria and North Korea. But Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has long cautioned that availability around the world alone doesn’t guarantee to global success. Instead, Netflix has to have local billing relationships, and most importantly, speak the local language.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings talking to journalists from around the world. Courtesy of Netflix

To date, Netflix has only translated its apps and catalog into 20 languages, and Hastings acknowledged Thursday that it will take some time to localize for additional territories. “We will add 2-3 languages each year,” he said, pointing to Greek and Romanian as some of the languages that are next on the list.

He also pointed out that YouTube is now available in 45 languages, quipping: “We have many ways to go from the 20 that we are at.”

Correction: 3/20: A previous version of this article incorrectly listed Iran as one of the countries where Netflix isn’t currently available.

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  1. Adriana M Olav says:

    Colombian. The country’s name is Colombia, not Columbia. That’s a university in NYC.

  2. EZ says:

    “available in almost every country of the world, save for China, Iran and North Korea”—-not knowing about the other two countries, but in China, it’s right—not available, does anyone know any hint on the possibility of next step in China?

  3. Vince says:

    Nice article. But the Netflix world map shows Iran as covered; it’s Syria that’s greyed out. Which is correct?

    • Anssi Hannula says:

      Netflix is available in Iran, but not in Syria. The article text is incorrect.

      The Netflix help pages (where the map is also found) say “Netflix is not yet available in China, though the company continues to explore options for providing the service. It also is not available in Crimea, North Korea, or Syria due to U.S. government restrictions on American companies.”.

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