Netflix: Going local to take over the world

Netflix's plan to take over the world is just getting started.

The on-demand video-streaming service could one day see 80 per cent of its customers coming from outside the United States, which is currently its largest market. It has begun producing original programming for Brazil and Mexico and plans to do the same in Asia.

Earlier this month, it expanded to 130 new countries, including Singapore. Its chief content officer Ted Sarandos says "the next phases are increasing localisation around the world, in terms of localising the language on the website and the content, local payment methods and all those things".

"And then eventually producing original programming in those countries," he tells The Straits Times. "Think of the local content we're producing as being for that country and region, but people will watch it all over the world."

He says Netflix believes these non-American productions will travel well. "There's a great sensibility for different types of programming, Asian programming, certainly, as well as French programming.

"When we make a local language show in India, it's made for India, but we know from watching Bollywood content that we're going to get enormous viewing of that programme around the world."

The company remains sensitive, however, to the cultural particularities of various markets around the world. This is why it worked closely with the Media Develop- ment Authority of Singapore to rate its content for subscribers here.

Mr Jonathan Friedland, Netflix's chief communications officer, says: "We have engaged with the Media Development Authority and we are continuing to help it understand our business and how it's different.

"What we try and do is empower consumers by giving them the right information in order to make good choices for them and their families. Netflix is an on-demand service, which means it's not free-to-air. You have to pay for it and become a member. And then we provide Singaporean ratings and have a mandatory PIN code to access our content for people who are 21 years old and older."

He says: "We are working with the Government to find the right balance to empower consumers with what they want and make sure the Government understands what we're doing. And so far, so good."

Mr Sarandos says the company is not worried about alienating international subscribers with its new ban on using VPNs, or virtual private networks, to access the US version of the service, which has a bigger range of content.

Some users in Singapore have complained about the ban after the service was launched here.

He says: "Remember, using VPNs to geofilter-hack has always been a violation of our terms of use. And Netflix services are now available in countries that haven't had access to them before."

"What we feel strongly is if we can provide as much content as possible at a fair price and quickly, then that's great for the people."

For now, non-US subscribers seem happy simply getting access to some of the US-made Netflix original series they have heard so much about, including dramas such as Jessica Jones, Narcos and Orange Is The New Black.

Mr Friedland adds: "We've been in most of Asia for only about 11/2 weeks, but what we're seeing is great enthusiasm for our original series. I think that's because it's a very connected culture that is familiar with these shows and they had no legal access to those shows before. "

He says viewers are more receptive to TV programmes from other countries than one might think.

The stereotype of American audiences being unwilling to watch films and TV shows with subtitles was shattered by the success of series such as the Norwegian- American crime comedy Lilyhammer, about a New York gangster trying to start a new life in Norway.

Mr Sarandos says: "We got an early taste of this with one of our first original shows, Lilyhammer, that was 65 per cent in Norwegian. People watched it in huge numbers in the US and all over the world. For most of them, it was the first time they had seen a Norwegian show.

"The Internet gives us the ability to override a lot of the conventional thinking of television."

He says Netflix thinks of its programming not as "domestic or international, but as different flavours of global television".

On US-made programmes and films, he says there are no plans to adopt the approach of some Hollywood film production companies, who attempt to court viewers in, say, China, with more action-heavy or China-related storylines.

"What I don't want to do, for lack of a better word, is dumb things down to make them travel more. Our original series have travelled around the world remarkably well and they're quite sophisticated dramas and comedies.

"I know there's a thing where Hollywood tries to make things more physical and take out dialogue, but I think what people really react to is great storytelling.

"Even if it's not familiar to them in some visual way, great storytelling is very universal."

When will 'peak TV' bubble explode?

This is widely said to be the golden age of English-language television.

Critics praise TV shows such as Breaking Bad and Game Of Thrones for being more daring and creative than similar franchise offerings at the cineplex. Not only that, these critically acclaimed TV shows have many avenues to find an audience in the Internet age and seem to be proliferating at a phenomenal rate.

So how can more of a good thing be a bad thing?

Mr John Landgraf, head of the FX TV network in the United States, declared last August that "there is simply too much television" now. Last year, more than 400 original scripted series aired in the US, compared with 211 shows in 2009.

He described the situation as a sort of bubble for the TV business that could peak this year. But before the bubble bursts, the era of "peak TV" will mean viewers are "overwhelmed by the sheer volume of TV shows".

Most programmes will see the number of viewers going down as a result, meaning it will be harder to make money from them and almost impossible to get audiences and critics to give a second chance to shows they have rejected.

Speaking to The Straits Times in Los Angeles this month, industry players had varying reactions to this controversial thesis, which Mr Landgraf says many in the business are "uncomfortable even debating".

Netflix's chief content officer Ted Sarandos dismisses the idea that there can be too much of a good thing and does not believe there is a downside to binge-watching.

Major TV writer-producers such as Lena Dunham (Girls, 2012- present) and Howard Gordon (Homeland, 2011-present) are not so sure, saying the changes present a new challenge for TV producers and consumers, and a fractured TV landscape with fewer opportunities for communal viewing.

Speaking for Netflix, the on- demand streaming service which now reaches 190 countries after launching in Singapore and 130 new markets, Mr Sarandos says he does not believe there is a problem.

"We don't think there's too much TV and if there is too much TV, someone else is going to have to slow down because we have big plans for this year and beyond," he told a gathering of television critics in Pasadena recently.

This year, Netflix will spend about US$6 billion (S$8.5 billion) on content as well as offer its subscribers more than 600 hours of new original content.

Mr Sarandos says finding quality shows has never been a problem for Netflix, which has produced acclaimed series such as prison drama Orange Is The New Black, superhero show Jessica Jones and comedy Master Of None. "Netflix is different from traditional TV. Our members come to us looking for something great to watch and personalisation allows us to give them the titles they're going to love the most."

As a result, the "peak TV" phenomenon might be more of a problem for traditional US broadcast net- works, which could find it harder to make original programming financially viable.

"I think the whole notion of peak TV is going to be a business function of the cable bundle more than anything... There're a lot of channels that are dependent on cable carriage fees. They produce an hour of original programming here and there, hoping to strike a chord with the cable buyer, not with consumers, and I think that will be impacted heavily by people's unwillingness to pay a big cable fee."

Dunham, writer, producer and star of the Golden Globe-winning drama Girls, which airs on the premium cable channel HBO, sees drawbacks to the many programmes on offer.

"I used to think that if you hadn't heard about a show, it's probably not great. And now, a lot of the best shows I know are ones people aren't talking about," she says. "One of my favourites is an Australian TV show called Please Like Me. Why is no one talking about it?

"It's a challenging landscape in which to be heard."

Gordon, who won Emmys for his writing on terrorism drama Homeland and has also worked on the hit shows 24 (2001-2010), The X-Files (1993-2002) and Angel (1999-2004), finds the saturated TV market confusing both as a viewer and a creator. "I find it overwhelming as a viewer. It's exhilarating, but I'm behind on so many things.

"I'm proud to be part of a medium that has so much good stuff. But there are so many shows and ways to distribute and monetise them and it's not clear how that's happening."

He mourns the loss of the communal experience of watching the same TV shows, which happens less as the market is skewed towards niche- viewing. "I remember watching American Idol and it was a family thing - it was great. Now my wife, kids and I are all looking at our own screens and it's kind of messed up."

Now there are fewer shows that can become cultural touchstones too. "People will talk about Jessica Jones. But if you've not seen it, you're out of the conversation. So culturally, there's never enough critical mass of programmes that air at the same time."

Mike Judge, creator of HBO tech- sector satire Silicon Valley (2014- present) and the Emmy-winning animated series King Of The Hill (1997-2010), says that while "there is an oversupply of shows now", the market has perhaps allowed different kinds of comedy to flourish too.

He adds: "With a show like comedian Louis C.K.'s Louie or Orange Is The New Black, the rules are kind of changing. There are shows that are somewhere between a comedy and a drama, which I think is good."

Terence Winter created the HBO crime drama Boardwalk Empire (2010-2014) and also wrote and produced the iconic crime show The Sopranos (1999-2007), which many critics believe ushered in the "golden age of television" in quality programming.

He says he has no idea if a show such as The Sopranos would get lost in the noise these days, noting that series are examined far more ruthlessly now. "The biggest difference is the scrutiny you're under now as every episode is reviewed and commented on.

"It's like reviewing chapters in a book. Sometimes on Boardwalk Empire, we'd have something happen and people would go, 'Well, that storyline went nowhere'. But we just introduced the guy, you didn't get to the point yet, can't I just finish telling you the story first?"

Of course, binge-watching an entire season of Boardwalk Empire would solve that problem, but there is no agreement on whether this emerging pattern of TV viewing is a good thing, with TV critics arguing that it makes audiences less discriminating.

"I'm a story junkie and there's a lot of good stuff out there," says Gordon. "But you can't be like a dog eating at the trough until you explode. And I sometimes feel like that.

"What I am nostalgic for is the refractory period between scheduled, must-see television. I miss the idea that you could watch a show and have the feeling of anticipation in that week."

By offering access to entire seasons of a show, services such as Netflix have been inextricably linked to the rise of binge- watching. So it is unsurprising that Mr Sarandos does not see any issue with it. He argues that people become more discriminating when they binge-watch, not less. "People are more critical because they know they are spending 10 to 13 hours with a show. They're more critical that first hour and then bail out and get into something else if they don't think they're going to stick with it."

He adds that even with the surfeit of TV programmes, "there's always a shortage of great content and great storytelling".

When it comes to must-see TV, "two or three shows a year have become four or five" and "given how much time people spend with programming and it's more convenient to watch, the Internet is accommodating peak TV just fine".

He adds: "Thinking there's too much, like there's a finite number of TV shows, that's a very old way to think about television."

This article was first published on January 23, 2016.
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