Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos is speaking out over continued criticism of the Dave Chappelle comedy special “The Closer.”
On the eve of a planned employee walkout at the streaming giant — organized by trans and LGBTQ+ staffers, content creators and allies — Sarandos addressed numerous points related to recent jokes from Chappelle that have incensed the trans community and been labeled as harmful.
The events around “The Closer” have represented a rare blunder for Sarandos and Netflix, whose deep pockets and warm relationships with talent have been transformative for the global entertainment sector for close to a decade. In our conversation, he admits up front that he “screwed up” in the handling of employee concerns, and talks more specifically about what the company does and does not consider hate speech.
Do you have any regrets about how this process was handled, especially in your internal communication with employees?
Ted Sarandos: Obviously, I screwed up that internal communication. I did that, and I screwed it up in two ways. First and foremost, I should have led with a lot more humanity. Meaning, I had a group of employees who were definitely feeling pain and hurt from a decision we made. And I think that needs to be acknowledged up front before you get into the nuts and bolts of anything. I didn’t do that. That was uncharacteristic for me, and it was moving fast and we were trying to answer some really specific questions that were floating. We landed with some things that were much more blanket and matter-of-fact that are not at all accurate.
Of course storytelling has real impact in the real world. I reiterate that because it’s why I work here, it’s why we do what we do. That impact can be hugely positive, and it can be quite negative. So, I would have been better in that communication. They were joining a conversation already in progress, but out of context. But that happens, internal emails go out. In all my communications I should lean into the humanity up front and not make a blanket statement that could land very differently than it was intended.
What is the protocol for defining hate speech at Netflix? What crosses the line and what doesn’t?
We are trying to support creative freedom and artistic expression among the artists that work at Netflix. Sometimes, and we do make sure our employees understand this, because of that — because we’re trying to entertain the world, and the world is made up of folks with a lot of different sensibilities and beliefs and senses of humor and all those things — sometimes, there will be things on Netflix that you dislike. That you even find to be harmful. Where we’ll definitely draw the line is on something that would intentionally call for physically harming other people or even remove protections. For me, intent to cause physical harm crosses the line, for sure.
Have you spoken to Dave Chappelle since this went down?
I know he’s been doing some Covid tour dates in Europe, so I’ve only touched base a few times.
Have the contents of those conversations been at all about the special or the employees of Netflix?
No. I would generally say he was appreciative of supporting the show and his ability to do his act.
I want to circle back and ask definitively, do you personally and does Netflix feel that “The Closer” does not amount to hate speech?
Under the definition of “does it intend to cause physical harm?” I do not believe it falls into hate speech.
So the special will remain on the service?
I don’t believe there have been many calls to remove it.
For the walk out tomorrow, there is a list of “firm asks” from trans employees to rectify this situation. Where are you at in hearing them out, and is anything emerging as a priority in the addressing the “pain” of some employees, as you put it?
I’ve spent the past couple of days listening to folks and sitting down with folks, about where they’re at and how they’re feeling and what they’d like to see moving forward. I’m continuing to do that now. One of the things that I think is very important that I want people to understand is that, going forward, it should be really clear that I support artistic freedom and the creators that work at Netflix. I’m committed to continuing to increase representation on screen and behind the camera, and I’m always open to learn and improve on how to address these challenges.
Is there anything more specifically actionable from the list of requests — like a call for a new trans and nonbinary talent fund be created?
We have a creative equity fund that we’ve heavily invested in exactly the things I believe they are asking about. We have and continue to invest enormous amounts of content dollars in LGBTQ+ stories for the world and giving them a global platform. Specifically, trans and non-binary content as well. That’s obviously continued strong, and I think we’ll continue on that path. What’s important to remember is that we’ve got incredible growth in our employee base, and a lot of people have joined during Covid and have never met anyone from Netflix. It’s very tough to understand company history, knowing where we’re at, what we do, and what kind of folks we are. We’ve got to take this opportunity to make sure that they know we are with them and creating this content to spread around the world and creating a great workplace for diverse and marginalized populations. We’re firmly committed to it.
Part of Netflix’s success story is its relationships with talent. Have you had feedback from your creators under overall deals, one-off projects or anyone outside of Netflix but in the creative community?
Yes, in the normal course of talking to folks all the time, they are all curious about these situations. There are some folks who really appreciate the artistic freedom part, and I think they wrestle with some things as well. But yes, I’ve had lots of conversations with our creators in and out of the comedy space.