Interview with Netflix content chief Ted Sarandos (video)

11 Jan 2012

Netflix's chief content officer Ted Sarandos

Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos believes that despite SOPA, Silicon Valley and Hollywood will eventually come together to find a solution to the global piracy problem.

Sarandos has one of the most interesting jobs in digital media. Netflix is currently responsible for 35pc of North America’s web traffic and its vast library of movies and TV shows can be accessed on 700-plus devices, from smart TVs to tablets, smartphones, PCs and consoles. In the last three months of 2011 some 2bn hours of content were streamed over Netflix.

It’s his job to source the content and strike deals with organisations like Disney, Warner and the BBC. As Netflix continues its global march, having expanded into Latin America and just this week the UK and Ireland, offering monthly streaming for stg£5.99 and €6.99 respectively, Sarandos believes that an already rich trove of content is getting richer due to the diversity of content coming online.

“The challenge for me and the team is navigating studios and TV makers around the world and showing them how to monetise their content after its premiered.”

Sarandos says it’s not that long since the mid-Sixties, when movies were only shown in cinemas and not on television.

Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos on digital distribution trends, content acquisition and SOPA 

“Content creators are very progressive and intellectually curious people.” He says that people tend to very quickly dismiss studios as anti-technology. “But that’s not true, they are harnessing the greatest technology in the world to create things like Avatar. Not only is technology part of their business, it is part of their lives.”

But at the same time, the digital revolution is unstoppable and studios need to be awake to new distribution methods. “There are 100 year-old legacy deals that have to be upended to make way for Netflix’s delivery of content. Creators have legitimate questions around the impact of streaming on sales of DVDs and cinema attendance. There are a lot of moving parts, some things require alternative behaviour and then you have this generational shift in behaviour.

“It’s great that I have this closet full of DVDs but my children may never buy a DVD. Everybody is trying to figure this one out.”

Sarandos says Ireland was very attractive to Netflix because it’s seen as a tech-savvy country, with good broadband penetration. “But it’s also attractive because there’s a lot of piracy. And one thing that Netflix brings to content owners and consumers is a well-priced €6.99 unlimited to every device connected to a screen – it’s a real alternative to piracy.

“Most people aren’t dishonest, they just lack quality distribution. Not only is Netflix at a great price, but it is streaming in high-definition in 5.1 audio – for that price it is breathtaking for most people.”

Hollywood and Silicon Valley can fight piracy together

I asked Sarandos about the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) debate that has polarised the internet community in the US. He says that while Netflix has adopted no official position on SOPA he is confident that Hollywood and Silicon Valley will find a common-sense solution to the problem.

“There’s a segment of Silicon Valley that believes the internet should be free and then there’s other folks who believe intellectual property should be protected and paid for. The middle ground is where piracy is a crime and nobody advocates that piracy should be protected. IP is valuable and people should pay for content but we also think the web should work.

“Placing rules that could break the basic infrastructure of the internet is not acceptable. So both sides have got to come together and figure a way to make it work.”

He agrees the debate has been a long time coming and SOPA may be the trigger for getting the technology and content industries to finally sit down and work something out.

“Like I said, the studios are not anti-technology. They need technology, they consume technology and they create technology. We’re all in this together and we need to make sure it continues as a business,” Sarandos said.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years