• Why I'm Taking a Break from Watching Netflix

    Yesterday Netflix reported its Q3 2021 earnings results. Ordinarily, as I’ve been doing for many years the day after Netflix’s earnings are released, I would be writing about the results, how many subscribers the company gained or lost, and how I interpreted the numbers.

    Today I’m not going to do any of that. Instead, I’d like to explain why I’ve been taking a break from watching Netflix since last week and why I plan to continue doing so.

    I’ve been writing VideoNuze since 2007. Two weeks ago, as part of a redesign, I took a step back, and observed that I’ve written around 2,500 VideoNuze posts, totaling approximately 2 million words. That’s a lot to say, especially for someone who considers himself an introvert. There have been a lot of times I’ve wanted to share something that might be considered political. Aside from a periodic rant about “net neutrality,” I’ve been pretty disciplined and not done so. I have enough outlets in my life to discuss politics and my world views, and I know these aren’t the things busy people who read VideoNuze read it for.

    But today I’m making an exception.

    Some of you may be aware of a controversy that has occurred recently related to the new Dave Chappelle special on Netflix. More here if you’re interested.
     
    I’m sensitive to the concerns that have been raised around the Chappelle special and I empathize with those who feel most affected by Chappelle’s comments. I’m also in solidarity with Netflix employees who are staging a walkout today. These aren’t specifically why I’m taking a break from Netflix.
     
    Rather, I’m doing so because of a memo that Netflix Co-CEO and Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos sent to employees a week ago Monday, which read in part: “While some employees disagree, we have a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm” and what has happened since then. The full content of the memo is contained here.
     
    As with anything complicated, there is data to support various points of view on the linkage between what people see on a screen and what they may then do. It is essential that freedom of speech and artistic expression be preserved.  As we all know, other platforms like Facebook and YouTube are grappling with similar challenges. No doubt there are instances where the linkage between screen and harm is suspected, but not conclusively proven. And other instances where there may be no linkage at all.

    Many years ago, in business school, a favorite professor of mine would be leading the class through a particularly vexing case study and he would abruptly stop, and march up the aisle into the students’ seats. He’d position himself within inches of a chosen student and lean in close. Then, with respect to the question at hand, he’d bark at the student to “Round it off!” - his way of urging that student to answer the question he had most recently posed, that cut to the heart of the case’s dilemma, in as simple and direct a way as possible.. He was only seeking an answer of “Yes or No?” “Good or Bad?” “Positive or Negative?” “Etc.” Nothing more.

    It always felt like there was a “catch” coming in those moments; a trick the professor was prepared to spring on the student to make him or her look like a fool. But there never was. In reality, he was only trying to compel students prone to overanalyzing to slice through the complexity hanging in the air and use their good common sense to provide a simple answer. After a student had finally answered, he’d excitedly waive his hands, exclaim “OK!” and stomp back to the lectern to resume leading the class.

    I can’t count the number of times over the years I’ve felt caught up in the complexity of something, and I’ve recalled those moments with that professor in that classroom. Often the best thing to do in life when faced with a really hard problem is to reduce it to its core fundamentals, reach back to values that were hopefully learned as a child, exercise good common sense and answer simply.

    Through a “Round it off” lens, Ted Sarandos has completely missed the mark over the past two weeks. Irrespective of whatever conflicting data exists between screens and real-world harm, or the data he was thinking of to back up his “strong belief,” his firmly stated position flies in the face of every morsel of common sense, not to mention ignores known cases of cause and effect between screens and real-world harm/violence. Sadly, we all know of too many of these examples, often involving young people. Anyone who ignores these examples dishonors the people who were injured, or killed, in these situations, as well as their relatives and friends. They must be kept accountable for their words.

    Sarandos’s cliche “I screwed up” damage control, PR-driven exchanges last night with Variety and The Hollywood Reporter - after not saying a word about any of this in a 41-minute earnings interview streamed on YouTube including other executives, that ended just prior - only adds insult to injury. Sarandos’s original internal memo was disrespectful, harmful and, by any thoughtful person’s reasonable standard, just plain wrong.

    Sarandos had an opportunity to begin yesterday’s earnings interview by forthrightly apologizing on camera for what he’s said, taking full ownership of it and resetting what he believes. At a minimum this would have signaled that correcting himself was his number one priority right now - before talking about the success of “Squid Game,” Latin America subscriber growth and upcoming content. I’ll add that while it’s not specifically her job, it would have been beneficial for Fidelity’s Nidhi Gupta, who hosted the interview, to have asked Sarandos about the situation before, or at least immediately after, her opening laudatory remarks about Netflix’s recent 44 Emmy wins, Squid Game’s performance and acquisition of the Roald Dahl Story Company. Not doing so was a big missed opportunity and enabled Sarandos to avoid on camera accountability.

    I’m taking a break from Netflix because I’m deeply disappointed by what I’ve watched unfold. I expect more from Sarandos - as I also do from other senior executives whose products and services I consume, especially in the rare times they chose to speak out on these and other highly sensitive topics.

    If you’re still reading by this point some of you may be thinking “Will, you need to chill out.” Maybe you’re right and maybe I do. What gets each of worked up is highly individual. Personally I’m exhausted by the onslaught of insensitivity and hubris from corporate executives and elected leaders. I’m insulted by the inauthenticity in which a statement can be clearly made one day, and then the very next day be contradicted by another one, leaving me wondering what this person’s actual thinking or motivation is. I’m also really worried that our democracy and capitalist system, both of which I’m a big believer in, have become so distorted by ego and avarice that basic human dignities are being crushed into oblivion daily. Maybe you have these feelings too; maybe you don’t. Maybe I do need to chill out. Or maybe this situation was a straw that broke the camel’s back. Maybe as a close observer and admirer, for a long time, of what Netflix has accomplished, I’m especially attuned to its missteps (and no, I’m not a stockholder).

    My Netflix break is an opportunity to instead focus my time in ways that are more aligned with the values that I was taught by my parents, who passed away within a week of each other in August, 2020, around respect, accountability and mutual responsibility to one another. The Red Sox are doing pretty well (notwithstanding last night’s loss) and I’m taking time to cheer them on. I’m laser focused on a conference I’m hosting in a few weeks that will hopefully help increase tolerance and equity in the advertising industry. And I’m trying to focus on my physical and mental health and the relationships that are most important to me. I don’t know how long my break from Netflix will last; only time will tell. Truth be told, I miss it less than I expected to.
     
    Some of you may have heard me mention one of my favorite quotes, “It’s a lonely view from Mount Purity.” I want to be clear that I don’t hold myself out as, nor aspire to be, any beacon of purity. I’m not looking to start a Netflix boycott. I’m not initiating a Change.org petition. I’m not encouraging you to forward this, or to also take your own break from Netflix. I’m only sharing these thoughts because I’m really bothered by the situation (obviously) and I’d like to raise your awareness of it. I’m taking a break from Netflix to help live my life in a more purposeful way.
     
    (If you’re wondering whether I know Ted Sarandos personally, I hosted him on a panel discussion at a breakfast I organized/moderated in June, 2010 in Los Angeles. I have met him a few times in professional situations since then. These are the extent of my interactions with him.)