Netflix Leaders Hail the Global Content Operation That Yielded ‘Squid Game'

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Netflix’s content team in Korea was pretty sure they had a local hit on their hands in “Squid Game.” But no one at the streaming giant saw a global phenomenon coming when the thriller bowed on Sept. 17, soon to become Netflix’s most-watched original series ever.

Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s co-CEO and chief content officer, said the series that has been sampled by some 142 million Netflix households was ordered a few years ago by executives Minyoung Kim and Don Kang on the content team serving South Korea.

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“They did recognize they thought it would be their biggest title this year,” Sarandos said Tuesday during Netflix’s quarterly earnings video interview released as part of the company’s third-quarter earnings. “I can’t say we had the eye on it that it would be the biggest title in our history and around the world.”

The success of “Squid Game” is a testament to “the system that Ted built,” aka content development operations in dozens of countries around the world, co-CEO Reed Hastings added. Sarandos praised the South Korea team for “creating a great environment for (‘Squid Game’ producers) to make a great show,” he said. Hastings offered a sartorial nod to “Squid Game” by donning a green track suit for the video interview.

From the day it premiered, “Squid Game” took off at lightning speed. Viewership patterns on the show have been remarkably consistent around the world. “The viewing is a lot like a local-language show but it plays in every market,” Sarandos said.

Hastings and Sarandos were pressed by Nidhi Gupta, the analyst at Fidelity Management & Research Co. who conducted this quarter’s video interview with Netflix brass, on what it is that makes shows breakout on a worldwide basis for Netflix.

Sarandos stressed that it is nearly impossible to predict what is going to catch the fancy of millions of viewers around the world.

“You know when it’s happening. It’s a little hard to predict,” he said. “Sometimes you think you have lightning in a bottle. Sometimes you have a great Korean show that turns out to be lightning in a bottle for the world.”

Sarandos added that viewing of non-English content on Netflix has grown dramatically in recent years as the range of programs has expanded on the platform. Among the non-English shows that are now starting to bubble up, Sarandos cited drama “Chestnut Man” from Denmark, an Indian remake of “Call My Agent” and the Paolo Sorrentino-directed Italian-language film “The Hand of God.”

The global programming model for Netflix is reinforced when series like “Squid Game” and the popular Spanish drama “Money Heist” take off in a big way.

“If they really catch on, they travel a lot,” Sarandos said.

Hastings was so optimistic about Netflix’s prospects that he indulged in a little speculation about the future. He noted that the fourth quarter is packed with so much content — “We’re in new territory,” he said — some of which was delayed because of the pandemic. He and other executives on the call also discussed Netflix’s burgeoning efforts to weave video gaming into its platform.

“Imagine three years from now, and some future ‘Squid Game’ is launching, and it comes along with an incredible array of interactive gaming options — and it’s all built into the service. And then of course you’ve got your off-Netflix aspects, the experiences that we’re building out, consumer products, all of that coming together,” Hastings said.

“A company like Disney is still ahead of us in some of those dimensions in putting that whole experience together, but boy are we making progress. So exciting, over the next 3-5 years [to be] kind of closing that gap and hope to pass them on that spectacular all-around experience.”

Despite the bloom on “Squid Game,” Netflix over the past week has been in the unusual position of facing criticism from some of its employees and some in the entertainment industry for its support of standup comedian Dave Chappelle, whose most recent standup special for the streamer includes a string of homophobic and anti-trans invective. Some Netflix staffers are planning a virtual walkout on Oct. 20 to protest the company’s actions. But Gupta did not raise the Chappelle controversy in the earnings and performance-focused interview.

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