The exec was asked what has changed for Netflix with the Nov. 12 launch of Disney Plus, which the Mouse House boasted as having signed up over 10 million users so far. Sarandos responded, “I don’t mean to say this [as] anything but the truth, which is — nothing, really.”
“Our focus has been, and it will be, on making great content people love, delivered seamlessly,” said Sarandos, speaking Thursday at the Paley Center for Media’s 24th Paley International Council Summit in New York.
He elaborated: “We’ve been competing with Disney and all these other folks who are coming into this from the beginning.” Despite different delivery forms in the past, it’s “the exact same players, the exact same content… so nothing really changes.”
Netflix is focused on its customers rather than rivals, he added. “We really don’t get that distracted by competition,” Sarandos said. “Not from out of arrogance, but just out of, we think it’s a better place to spend the energy.”
But there’s no question Netflix is keeping a very close eye on its competitors. Just last week, CEO Reed Hastings said that out of the new crop of rivals, “Disney’s the one that we really have the most to learn from in terms of entertainment.”
Sarandos said that at some point Netflix’s service could be entirely stocked with originals: “One way or the other I think we end up there.” He reiterated a talking point he’s often raised: that the company expected big studios to stop licensing their content to Netflix eventually, which is why it started creating originals over seven years ago. Echoing comments he’s made recently, Sarandos said Thursday, “I was frankly surprised it took Disney and other people this long to go on this path.”
Today, Netflix is the king of subscription VOD, and it’s hoping to keep growing the customer base amid the forays by streaming-wars combatants like Disney, WarnerMedia, Apple and NBCUniversal. As of the end of the third quarter 2019, Netflix had 158.3 million total paid subs, including 60.6 million in the U.S. It’s set to spend an estimated $15 billion on content in 2019 on a gross-cash basis, and the company keeps raising funding through junk bonds to pump out even more programming.
By and large, Sarandos had a friendly session at the Paley Center: He was interviewed by “Saturday Night Live” cast member Chris Redd, who appears in Netflix’s pot comedy series “Disjointed.”
But Redd pointedly asked Sarandos about Hastings’ comments at the New York Times’ DealBook conference about Netflix’s decision to remove an episode of “Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj” in Saudi Arabia. That came after the Saudi government threatened the company over the offending episode, in which the comedian criticized Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (aka MBS) and the regime’s role in the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. “We’re not in the news business,” Hastings said last week. “We’re not trying to do ‘truth to power.’ We’re trying to entertain… We don’t feel bad about [pulling the ‘Patriot Act’ episode in Saudi Arabia] at all.”
Sarandos attempted to walk back his boss’ comments, saying they may not have been “a great choice of words.”
“I think all entertainment is truth to power – all creative expression is truth to power,” Sarandos said. “Stand-up comedy is certainly truth to power. A lot of great films have changed the course of history.”
What Hastings was getting at is that Netflix is “not in the breaking-news business,” Sarandos said. Redd countered that Minhaj’s show is definitely about the news, but Sarandos tried to split hairs by claiming “it isn’t the news itself.”
The challenge for Netflix as a global company, Sarandos said, is that “there are different standards and different laws and regulations you have to figure out how to navigate.”
The big shift with internet streaming, Sarandos said, is that it allow companies like Netflix to present a huge diversity of voices and stories that wouldn’t have made it to air in the broadcast era of TV.
“The opportunity that presents itself is a lot of people who never had an opportunity [before] are making real high-quality television compared with anything else on any other outlet,” Sarandos added. “Where the next great story is going to come from, who’s going to deliver that story, is up for grabs.”
Netflix is casting a very wide net in terms of acquiring and producing new content, including 130 seasons of original scripted local-language series from 20 countries. “Our network is not geared to one thing for one demographic,” he said. “We are basically trying to appeal to whatever you like – we don’t want our brand to define the shows or the shows to define the brand.”
As for whether there’s too much television content flooding the market, Sarandos responded, “No one ever says that about anything but TV.” He added, “Are there too many songs? Are there too many paintings? Are there too many poems?” Redd interjected: “Is there too much love?”
The exec also said the company isn’t absolutely wedded to its binge-release strategy of dropping all episodes of a show at once. In some cases Netflix releases new segments weekly, as it does in the U.S. with “The Great British Baking Show.” Said Sarandos, “It’s a business, not a religion.”
In a lighter moment, Sarandos was asked about his reaction to the “Saturday Night Live” parody ad from a year ago mocking Netflix’s rampant spending. Sarandos said he was a huge fan of the show and said he thought the bit was “hilarious,” adding, “When you’re spoofed on ‘SNL,’ you have arrived. I wish they would have used my name or something.”