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Netflix’s Ted Sarandos on finding the right content

Kai Ryssdal Jul 10, 2013

Netflix’s Ted Sarandos on finding the right content

Kai Ryssdal Jul 10, 2013

From “House of Cards” to the much-awaited return of “Arrested Development,” it’s clear that original programming from Netflix (and competitors) is here to stay. Its latest series, “Orange is the New Black,” hits your various screens at midnight tonight — and it’s already been renewed for a second season — quite a change from the typical TV model. How do they know it will succeed?

“I always love that phrase ‘Oh, this is a good idea but it’s execution dependent,'” says Ted Sarandos, chief content officer at Netflix. “As if anything in life is not execution dependent. Breathing is execution-dependent. So yes, we have all  the elements of a good show that lines up with the viewing data that we have,” he says.

But it’s still has to be well executed.

It’s still much less risky, Sarandos thinks, than networks that put together 50-70 pilots a year. “That’s a lot of programming that never gets seen by anybody,” he says. Most of the pressure really goes to the audience matching, “which is what we do best.”

The Netflix series is based on Piper Kerman’s memoir “Orange Is The New Black: My Year In a Women’s Prison.” The series was developed and executive produced by Jenji Kohan, the woman behind Showtime’s hit show “Weeds,” and Liz Friedman, executive producer of the syndicated TV series, “Young Hercules.”

By now, Netflix is getting this kind of original programming down to a science. From the consumers’ perspective, Netflix offers up an entire season at once — allowing for lots and lots of binge viewing.

But it also means changes for those on the other side of the screen — the writers and producers.

“I think it’s actually the most profound part of the change,” says Sarandos. “Typically on a TV series, the writers on a show are writing for their life almost every episode. When someone sits down to write a Netflix show, they know there’s going to be a 13th hour.”

Having that kind of guarantee gives writers a chance to tell a different kind of story — one that’s more like a 13-hour movie than a traditional TV show. “This is really programmed to be addictive — the kind of storytelling that keeps you hooked. Those are the kind of shows we look for, and we think ‘Orange’ is one of those,” says Sarandos.

Still, audiences haven’t changed that much. They still demand great content; they want stories that they can follow over time and characters they can get attached to. Using data on their viewers, Netflix knows where the appetites are.

“When we started looking at the bigger television ecosystem, you see that there’s not that many serialized TV shows being made for TV,” Sarandos points out. “The economics are lousy: They don’t sell into syndication well; they’re expensive to produce. [We thought] perhaps, if this is what our subscribers want to watch, we should learn the muscle of creating it for them.”

As more and more companies begin to emulate the model, Netflix could start feeling the squeeze. But Sarandos isn’t worried.

“Anyone who is trying to get the attention of a viewer is competition on some level,” he says. “I don’t know that our specific competitor has really emerged yet at all.”

Netflix benefits from all the data it can get on its consumers about their taste preferences, but cutting out the middleman can also mean more pressure on the company to please viewers.

“We are unique in the cable universe in that our business is purely direct to consumer,” he adds. “We’re constantly asking our customers how we’re doing, because it’s so simple and easy to join — and so simple and easy to quit.”

So does the head of content at Netflix ever get sick of all the binge watching he has to do?

“I do this because I love it. I grew up in front of a television and to me its an extension of my childhood what I’m doing here — so I love it,” he says.

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