It’s been a roller coaster week for Ted Sarandos, the Greek-American businessman who serves as the co-chief executive officer and chief content officer for Netflix.
Whilst basking in the glory of Korean surrealist drama ‘Squid Game’, with an astonishing 142 million “member households” tuning in to watch the series in the first four weeks; entertainment behemoth Netflix has been contending with the ongoing fallout from ‘The Closer’, American stand-up comedian Dave Chapelle’s recent special that has recently come under fire after being deemed by many LGBTQ people and supporters to be homophobic and transphobic.
Netflix Inc. employees had reportedly raised concerns about offensive material in “The Closer” days before its release, warning executives that a series of jokes about gender-neutral pronouns and the genitalia of transgender people was potentially inflammatory and damaging.
Following The Closer’s release on 5 October, Netflix software engineer Terra Field spoke out against the company in a viral Twitter thread, describing Chappelle’s comedy as symptomatic of “a culture that marginalises and devalues trans people”.
In the face of criticism, the Netflix boss sent a company-wide email on 11 October that supported the decision to air the special, acknowledging that some employees were “angry, disappointed and hurt”, but defended creators’ right to “artistic freedom”.
“With ‘The Closer’ we understand that the concern is not about offensive-to-some content, but titles which could increase real world harm … While some employees disagree, we have a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm,” wrote Sarandos in the email, adding that some people “find [stand-up] to be mean-spirited but our members enjoy it, and it’s an important part of our content offering”.
Field was one of three employees suspended by the company for subsequently attempting to crash an executive-level meeting. She has since been reinstated.
On 16 October, it was reported that the company, which prides itself on its internal transparency, but which expressly forbids employees to share the information it supplies them with, had fired a trans employee for leaking “commercially sensitive” documents to Bloomberg in the wake of the controversy around the special – reasoning which has been disputed internally.
The employee was one of the organisers of a coordinated protest which took place on Wednesday outside Netflix’s LA offices. Attended by over 1,000 employees, the rally saw staffers engage in a virtual walkout while promoting trans charities and asking supporters not to use Netflix for the day in solidarity.
Jameela Jamil, Wanda Sykes, Colton Haynes, Elliot Page, and other actors also lent their support to the protest in a video released on the morning of the walkout while Netflix employees and supporters took to Twitter to promote the cause under the hashtag #Netflixwalkout.
With the conversation quickly becoming a debate about censorship and hate speech, the walkout was preceded by a list of demands released to the press by Netflix employees, none of which involve taking down the comedy special, but instead request a new fund for trans and non-binary talent, harm reduction, and employee safety.
“We want the company to adopt measures in the areas of content investment, employee relations and safety, and harm reduction, all of which are necessary to avoid future instances of platforming transphobia and hate speech,” reads the press release.
The protest came a day after Netflix reported record subscriber numbers of 213.5 million globally.
Ahead of the planned walkout—framed by trans employees and allies as a “day of rest”—Netflix issued a statement acknowledging the deep hurt that had been caused, saying that, “We value our trans colleagues and allies, and understand the deep hurt that’s been caused. We respect the decision of any employee who chooses to walk out, and recognize we have much more work to do both within Netflix and in our content.”
Earlier on the day of the walkout, Sarandos spoke to several media outlets, admitting that he had “screwed up” over the series of company wide messages defending David Chappelle’s latest comedy special, saying that he “should have led with a lot more humanity.”
“I should’ve made sure to recognise that a group of our employees was hurting very badly from the decision made,” added Sarandos.
“I respect them deeply, and I love the contribution they have at Netflix. They were hurting, and I should’ve recognised that first.”
However, Sarandos says that there are no plans to remove Chapelle from Netflix.
“[The challenge that Netflix has] is to entertain the world [and] part of that challenge means that you’ve got audiences with various taste, various sensibilities, various beliefs,” said Sarandos.
“You really can’t please everybody or the content would be pretty dull. And we do tell our employees upfront that we are trying to entertain our members, and that some of the content on Netflix you’re not going to like … this kind of commitment to artistic expression and free artistic expression is sometimes in conflict with people feeling protected and safe.”
And it isn’t just Netflix defending Dave Chapelle, but some comics also, believing that the ability to take risks for the sake of humour is vital for comedy to thrive.
Sarandos also highlighted the “allyship that the company has towards the LGBTQ+ community, including massive investment in content and creators and storytellers”.
Despite this supposed “allyship” many seem to remain dissatisfied.
The lesbian comic Hannah Gadsby, who has made two specials for Netflix and was cited in Sarandos’ 11 October memo as one example of the diversity of content the streaming platform provides, condemned the company on Instagram on 15 October, describing the company as an “amoral algorithm cult” and asking Sarandos “[not to] drag my name into your mess”.
In addition, producer Jaclyn Moore, showrunner of the Netflix series ‘Dear White People’, has also announced that she will no longer work with the company, saying that Chappelle’s content was “the same rhetoric that inspires people to [inflict] violence on trans people, which is itself an epidemic”.
Meanwhile Chappelle has laughed off the backlash saying: “If this is what being cancelled is about, I love it.”
It is not the first time since Sarandos has been at the helm that Netflix has been forced to defend its streaming decisions.
Shortly after Netflix announced Sarandos as its co-chief executive officer and member of the company’s board of directors in 2020, the company was indicted by a grand jury in Tyler County, Texas, for its film ‘The Cuties’. The script for ‘The Cuties’ was written by writer director Maïmouna Doucouré taking inspiration from an inappropriate talent show she happened across one day and which its filmmakers claimed was intended to criticise the hyper sexualisation of preadolescent girls.
While receiving generally positive reviews from critics for its ambition and acting, Cuties became a subject of controversy, starting from Netflix’s initial promotional poster that was widely considered inappropriate. The film received overwhelming criticism following its release on Netflix and cases of review bombs and subscription cancellations surged, popularised by the hashtag #CancelNetflix.
Netflix defended the film saying, “Cuties is a social commentary against the sexualization of young children. This charge is without merit and we stand by the film.”
Born Theodore Anthony Sarandos Jr in in 1964, Sarandos’ paternal grandfather came from the Greek island of Samos to the United States as a young boy. His pappou’s family name was originally Kariotakis but he changed it to Sarandos.
“My grandfather on my father’s side is Alex Kariotakis. He came to America as a teenager and changed his last name to Sarandos. He was from Samos Greece,” Sarandos has explained, speaking of his Greek heritage.
“I’ve been back several times, we still have a lot of family in Samos. Every time I go to Samos I just fall in love with the country all over again.”
You could say though, that America has been kind to Sarandos, whose estimated net worth was recently valued at around $40.7 million dollars.
In 2013, Ted Sarandos was listed among the 100 most influential people in the world in the Titans list of Time magazine, best known as TIME 100 of the year, picking out major artists, entrepreneurs, athletes and innovators.
Sarandos owns over 69,707 units of NetFlix Inc stock worth over $6,109,659 and in addition, he makes $34,674,400 as Co-Chief Executive Officer, Chief Content Officer, and Director at NetFlix.
Since joining Netflix in 2000, oft-referred to as a ‘mastermind’, Sarandos has been said to have revolutionised media consumption, using algorithms to predict what programmes viewers will want to watch prior to producing them.
With over 14 million paid memberships in over 190 countries and streaming TV series, documentaries and feature films across a wide variety of genres and languages, Netflix is one of the world’s leading entertainment services.
Indeed, Netflix has become known as the ‘ultimate digital disruptor’, considered the first major disruption to the television and movie industry, as the on-demand platform offers an inexpensive alternative to traditionally expensive cable TV services, using the internet – anywhere, anytime.
More than 80 per cent of the TV shows people watch on Netflix are discovered through the platform’s data-driven recommendation system – the result of decisions made by machine learning and algorithms to help viewers find shows that they may not have initially chosen yet may be likely to enjoy.
Sarandos has been outspoken about discarding or not holding important traditional network models, describing these as now becoming archaic.
Instead, under co-CEO and chief content officer Sarandos, the focus of the Netflix model is on the audience, and there is no programming grid – or appointment linear-based television – that is typically used by traditional TV networks. Barometers of success are if the audience completes watching the show, the timeframe within which they finish watching a series and if there is social media buzz by critics and fans.
Sarandos believes his revolutionary model provides a way to prioritise the needs and desires of the consumer, allowing the viewer to be in control, and to watch only the content they enjoy.
Speaking of viewers watching content that they enjoy, when asked if Netflix plans to film anything in Greece, Sarandos says, “We definitely intend to.”
“It’s such a beautiful filming location and there are an eternity of stories to tell about Greece.”