How Much More Netflix Can the World Absorb?

    Bajaria started in her new role just as Netflix reached a high point in a decade of galloping growth. In 2020, tens of millions of pandemic viewers were subscribing to the platform to watch frothy hits such as “Tiger King,” “The Queen’s Gambit,” and Shonda Rhimes’s Regency-era soap “Bridgerton” (according to Howe, an exemplary gourmet cheeseburger). The platform currently releases to the public only one opaque figure to gauge a show’s popularity: hours watched in its first twenty-eight days. Between September and October of 2021, the South Korean battle-royal series “Squid Game” was watched for 1.65 billion hours, making it the company’s biggest show ever. Just months later, Netflix made the startling disclosure that it had lost subscribers for the first time in a decade; the day after the announcement, the company’s valuation plummeted by more than fifty billion dollars. Hastings and Sarandos blamed the backslide on everything from the war in Ukraine to password sharing. Investor panic mingled with Schadenfreude in Hollywood over the prospect that entertainment’s chief disruptor might no longer be indomitable. At a media conference in June, Bajaria said, “It’s a good place, to be the underdog.”

    The subscription numbers recovered in the second half of the year, helped by such releases as the fourth season of the sci-fi smash “Stranger Things.” But Netflix’s trouble turned out to be a harbinger of wider disturbance in the streaming industry. At other platforms, the summer and fall brought a cascade of layoffs, leadership shufflings, and abrupt cancellations. Streaming companies had spent years scrambling to catch up with the hyper-aggressive strategy that Netflix pioneered, spending lavish sums to nab shows before their competitors, sometimes without even seeing completed pilot scripts. Now, with a recession looming, the industry was undergoing what Matthew Belloni, a founding partner of the industry outlet Puck, gently described to me as “a market correction.” According to the entertainment-research firm Ampere Analysis, the number of new scripted series aimed at American adults was down twenty-four per cent among streamers and networks in late 2022 compared with the same period in 2021. In November, Netflix introduced a lower-cost subscription tier with ads, a move it had long resisted, and it will reportedly soon start cracking down on password sharing. Its projected content budget for 2023 is the same as last year’s—seventeen billion dollars, a colossal sum, but, by the warped standards that the company set for itself, anything that isn’t rapid expansion looks like stagnation.

    One challenge is the seeming saturation of the American streaming market. Just a few years ago, Netflix was effectively what one industry analyst described to me as “the only game in town.” Now, with the ascendancy of, among other platforms, Prime Video, Peacock, Paramount+, and the formidable triple “bundle” of Disney+, ESPN+, and Hulu (not to mention competition from the likes of YouTube and TikTok), it is harder to keep viewers engaged. According to a recent study by the streaming-analytics firm Antenna, only fifty-five per cent of U.S. Netflix subscribers who signed up last January stayed on for more than six months. Netflix does not, like some of its competitors, have a deep back catalogue of globally popular intellectual property, and companies once willing to license their content now withhold it for their own streaming services. Nor does Netflix have another lucrative business arm, the way Apple or Amazon does, to offset spending on content. What it does have is a head start in the large swaths of the globe that are still dominated by traditional “linear TV.” Netflix made its first foreign-language original, the Mexican fútbol satire “Club de Cuervos,” in 2015. Two years later, Hastings acknowledged that “the big growth” for the company lay abroad. Netflix today offers streaming services in more than a hundred and ninety countries. According to one study, in the third quarter of 2022 alone it released more than a thousand episodes of original streaming television globally—at least five times the number of any other streaming service. Almost seventy per cent of Netflix’s two hundred and twenty-three million subscriptions now come from outside the U.S. and Canada.

    The company deemed Bajaria suited to guide this repositioning in part because, as Hastings put it, she is the “most global television executive.” The London-born daughter of Indian parents from East Africa, Bajaria can juggle the relatively parochial workings of Hollywood and the more ambassadorial demands of representing Netflix abroad. She lunches regularly at the Tower Bar, the industry clubhouse in West Hollywood where you go if you want to be seen making a TV deal. But Hastings told me that she impressed him, during a business trip to Delhi early in her tenure, by insisting that they leave the grounds of the five-star Imperial Hotel to eat at a “hole-in-the-wall that had epic food.”

    During Bajaria’s thirty-six hours in Mexico City, her meals were more of the white-tablecloth variety. She had breakfast at the Four Seasons with Carolina Rivera, a Mexican telenovela writer who worked on “Jane the Virgin” for the CW and now creates Spanish-language content for Netflix, and dinner at an upscale vegan-friendly restaurant with the five female leads of “Las Viudas de los Jueves” (“The Thursday Widows”), which was described to me as a Mexican “Desperate Housewives.” On her only full day in town, she delivered the keynote address at a Netflix-sponsored UNESCO luncheon on the grounds of Los Pinos, the former Presidential palace. Her private car rolled up to the turquoise gate at noon. Inside, the dangling fronds of massive Montezuma cypresses hid a sunken patio from view, but there was no missing the entrance, which was marked by a huge sign emblazoned with a scarlet “N.” In her address, which lasted exactly three minutes, Bajaria repeated a phrase that has become boilerplate for a globalized Netflix: “We truly believe that great storytelling can come from anywhere and be loved everywhere.”

    In recent years, Netflix has spent gargantuan sums to lock some of the biggest American showrunners into exclusive or semi-exclusive “over-all” content-making deals. In 2017, Shonda Rhimes left ABC, where she’d made runaway hits such as “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” and signed a contract with Netflix for a reported hundred million dollars. The following year, the company paid a rumored three hundred million for a deal with Ryan Murphy, the prolific creator behind “Glee” and “American Horror Story.” When Bajaria took over, in 2020, she started an over-alls department as a kind of concierge service for this marquee talent. Rhimes told me, “I know this sounds fake, because I’ve never, ever heard of this in television. I’ve had the easiest time in the world at Netflix.” During travels in Europe over the summer, Bajaria made a special stop in Budapest to see Shawn Levy, who directed the “Night at the Museum” movies before his production company, 21 Laps, brought “Stranger Things” to Netflix, in 2015. Now, under an over-all deal worth nine figures, he was filming a miniseries adaptation of Anthony Doerr’s best-selling novel “All the Light We Cannot See,” about a blind French teen-ager during the Second World War. Bajaria told me that relationship management is “half my job, if not more,” adding, “Obviously, we have a big, big relationship with Shawn.”

    One evening, in the lobby bar at the Budapest Four Seasons, she and Levy recalled meeting for the first time, shortly after Bajaria’s promotion.

    “There was a simpatico idea that things could be really good and commercial,” Levy said. “You didn’t care about ‘taste clusters,’ or whatever the Netflix lingo is. Is that still a thing?” He was referring to a onetime company method of sorting subscribers into categories based on their viewing preferences.

    “I feel like when I started it was still a thing,” Bajaria said. “But no.”

    “It’s such a delightfully absurd lexicon,” Levy replied. Slim and excitable, he was sipping a Bloody Mary and sitting, in the universal pose of the male American schmoozer, with one sneaker-clad foot crossed over the opposite knee. “You were, like, ‘Just explode the idea of what your mandate is,’ ” he said, adding, “You were, like, ‘Give me misanthropic antihero one-hour drama, give me aspirational action-adventure!’ ”

    The next morning, Levy was filming an evacuation scene at the old Budapest stock exchange, a fading Beaux-Arts building that had been made over to look like the Gare du Nord, in Paris. Bajaria sat in a director’s chair, watching on a monitor as two of the series’ stars, Aria Mia Loberti and Mark Ruffalo, ran among a crowd of extras in fur overcoats down the building’s main marble staircase. Later, she and Levy posed for a photo on a battered steamer trunk in front of a newsstand stocked with fake back issues of La Mode Chic. For better or worse, some network executives are notorious for providing reams of notes on showrunners’ works in progress. The feedback I heard Bajaria give was unfailingly broad and boosterish. In private, Levy showed her a recently filmed scene on his laptop. Listening to them talk about it afterward provided few clues as to its contents.

    “It’s big and beautiful, and has a big emotional score, and an emotional story, and a great cast,” Bajaria said.

    “My hope is that it will get platformed to the world in a loud way,” Levy replied.

    In 2017, Netflix marked its territory in Hollywood with the opening of a new company headquarters, the Icon Building, on what was once the original Warner Bros. studio lot. One morning, I passed under the lobby’s eighty-foot-long video screen to the elevator banks, where a massive statue of Young-hee, the murderous doll from “Squid Game,” loomed. Upstairs, Bajaria showed me her office, which sat between those of Sarandos and Scott Stuber, her counterpart in the platform’s newer film division. It was a sunny space decorated with a large figurine of the Hindu god Ganesha and, as an homage to both Bajaria’s itinerant job and her multinational upbringing, seven clocks set to the local times of cities across the globe.

    Bajaria’s parents, Rekha and Ramesh, met and married in Kenya but moved to the U.K. for her birth, in 1970, so that she would have what they considered a more desirable passport. “We wanted her to have that birthright,” Rekha told me. After living briefly in Zambia and then back in England for the birth of Bajaria’s brother, Rekha and Ramesh moved to Los Angeles, where they started a successful car-wash company. They took their baby son but left Bajaria, then five, in London, with her grandparents, to continue school while they settled in. Because of visa issues, she didn’t reunite with the family in L.A. until three years later. Bajaria recalled, “I was seeing these people who were my parents but who I did not know, and there were no Indians here.” TV became a window onto an unfamiliar culture. Each week, the family would gather to watch “Dallas” and “Dynasty.” Bajaria recalled that within a couple of months she had lost her British accent.

    Rekha and Ramesh liked to entertain, throwing parties with bands playing Hindi music into the early morning. But they tried—unsuccessfully—to prevent their daughter from dating or even playing volleyball. “My dad said, ‘Those shorts are too short,’ ” Bajaria told me. When she was in high school, she baffled her elders with the announcement that she wanted to work in entertainment. “Even later, when I was on the cover of Fortune, one of my Indian aunties was, like, ‘We’re proud of you, Bela, but it’s so surprising,’ ” Bajaria said. (A print in her office, by the artist Maria Qamar, shows a bindi-adorned woman asking, “Has anyone seen my sharam?!”—the Hindi word for shame.) During college at Pepperdine University, in Malibu, she signed up for Miss India California, a pageant for women of Indian descent, at the suggestion of a family friend. For the talent portion of the competition, she learned a dance from the classic Bollywood film “Guide.” Rekha told me the pageant organizers said that at first Bajaria had “two left feet,” but she won the title, followed by Miss India U.S.A. and, finally, in 1991, Miss India Universe. (She took time off from school, and later graduated from the California State University in Long Beach.)

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