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Netflix chief content officer Bela Bajaria used the platform of her keynote address Friday at the UCLA Entertainment Symposium to dispel a few myths that persist around the streamer that has transformed television viewing during the past decade.
During an hourlong, wide-ranging Q&A with veteran entertainment attorney Ken Ziffren, Bajaria made the forceful case that “algorithms don’t decide what we make” when it comes to how Netflix uses data to inform programming and strategic decisions.
“There’s not an algorithm that would probably say, you know what’s a great idea? A period show about a woman playing chess,” Bajaria said, pointing to 2021’s “The Queen’s Gambit,” which raked in 11 Emmys for the streamer including the trophy for best limited series. Nor would data analytics ever deliver a report instructing them to “do something thematically about connection and lonliness, and maybe throw in road rage for the inciting incident,” Bajaria added, pointing to this year’s Ali Wong-Steven Yeun starrer “Beef.”
Bajaria, a seasoned veteran of CBS and NBCUniversal before joining Netflix in 2016, came down strongly in favor of the all-episodes-at-once binge model for episodic television, compared to the weekly cadence of traditional TV. (As Ziffren touched on Netflix tropes, Bajaria leaned in to the opportunity to deliver what she called “tiny myth busters.”)
“There is no data to support that weekly is better, and it’s not a great consumer experience,” Bajaria told Ziffren, partner and co-founder of Ziffren Brittenham.
Ziffren pressed Bajaria for details of how Netflix oversees its massive annual content budget, and how it handles development and allocation for international markets.
Bajaria emphasized that Netflix’s first focus is to make local-language content designed to resonate with a specific target region, and then expose those shows to a global audience on its platform of more than 230 million subscribers. The company has 27 content teams spread around the world. Each team has its own budget and greenlight authority.
“We don’t make global shows. We make local authentic shows in every country, and they’re on a global platform,” Bajaria said. “And because stories can be universal, and themes can be universal and people can have access for the first time. So this will lead to shows and films from different countries, other people may find them and love them, and they’ll connect with a global audience. But we really make local shows on a global platform.”
Earlier in the Q&A, Bajaria detailed her family history of relocating to the U.S. from the U.K. when she was 9, and how important American television shows were to teaching her about the language and culture of new surroundings. “To now be in a job and a company where it’s not just Hollywood exporting stories It’s also people from different countries in different languages telling their own authentic stories and their own languages on a global platform, and to be a part of that (which) has never happened before is incredibly rewarding, personally and professionally.”
When Ziffren pressed Bajaria on the question of why Netflix favors the binge distribution model for episodic TV, the executive pointed to the company’s track record last year with buzzy titles such as “Wednesday,” “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” and “Stranger Things.” “It’s never stopped something from piercing the cultural zeitgeist, from being in the conversation, from taking a song back up to Number One 30 years later, from selling out Vans (shoes) or Surfer Boy Pizzas or chess sets around the world,” she said.
Other highlights of the conversation:
Renewal metrics: Ziffren pressed Bajaria for specifics on what matters most to Netflix when weighing renewal and cancellation decisions. “Budget and size of audience is one factor that has to go into making renewal decisions,” she said. “Engagement is really important. Did people press play, but they didn’t finish the series?”
Transparency: Ziffren got a murmur out of the crowd of legal eagles and law students when he brought up the issue of “transparency.” That concept has been a hot topic amid Hollywood’s labor strife and the writers strike that began May 2. But he didn’t dwell on the subject and in fact credited Netflix with being “ahead of the curve” by publishing weekly top 10 lists from various global territories. “I appreciate you realizing that we actually do share things,” Bajaria said.
Content ownership: Bajaria said there’s no internal formula for deciding how much Netflix spends on Netflix-produced shows and content licensed from external sources. “I want to have the best shows and movies, period. I don’t care where they come from,” she said.