Netflix has inked a multiyear deal with the Obamas for original programming — but the content from the former First Couple will not have any political bias, according to chief content officer Ted Sarandos.
“This is not The Obama Network,” said Sarandos, speaking Tuesday at the Paley Center for Media in New York. “There’s no political slant to the programming.”
Sarandos was interviewed journalist Ken Auletta at the event. Noting that the Netflix exec is a Democrat, Auletta asked what he would say to Republicans about Netflix’s seeming push to the political left — including the appointment of former Obama adviser Susan Rice to its board.
“Um, wait for the programming,” Sarandos responded.
He said Netflix’s deal with Higher Ground Productions, the production shingle formed by Barack and Michelle Obama, is for entertainment programming, including scripted films and TV shows as well as unscripted lifestyle content and docu-series. Netflix officially announced the deal last week.
The Obamas were forming Higher Ground Productions as they were leaving the White House, according to Sarandos, who added, “I didn’t want to see them go anywhere else because I think they’ll be great at it.”
That said, Sarandos allowed that “it’s hard to argue that there’s not a left lean to the creative community.” But he insisted that the original content Netflix greenlights and distributes is “an aggregation of all those storytellers,” not reflecting “the politics of me” or Netflix chairman and CEO Reed Hastings.
Sarandos in particular has a close relationship with the Obamas. His wife, Nicole Avant, served as U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas in President Obama’s first term in office.
The rest of Sarandos’ discussion with Auletta covered topics he’s addressed before. Netflix will spend up to $8 billion on content in 2018, and 85% of that is going toward originals, a figure Sarandos cited at an investment conference earlier this month. He noted that Netflix’s “originals” include TV shows that have aired in other countries which the company licenses for global distribution.
Sarandos also explained, once again, that Netflix does not release viewing metrics because it’s not an ad-supported network. Netflix doesn’t need to have an instant hit, he averred, arguing that the release of TV ratings puts pressure on a show’s creators early in its life cycle.
“We have many shows that don’t work the first weekend, or first week, or first month,” Sarandos said. But over time, “they grow and grow and grow.”
Netflix produces and acquires content for 2,000 different “taste clusters” of people who subscribe to the service, according to Sarandos. A successful content investment for Netflix prompts some portion of its subscriber base to sign up or keeping paying, but what resonates with one cluster “may not work for you,” he said.
Sarandos also reiterated Netflix’s position that collapsing movie-release windows is a more economically efficient model for the film business. “I put 33 movies in the theaters last year – more than any other studio,” he boasted, although of course most of those were smaller-budget films. Netflix is targeting the release of 80 original films this year, which Sarandos previously has said range from “sub-indie” low-budget pictures to “$100 million blockbusters.”