Bela Bajaria, Netflix’s global head of television, follows a similar routine whether she’s visiting Mumbai or Berlin or Seoul or Stockholm or any of the company’s twenty-six foreign outposts. A black car brings her from the airport to a luxury hotel, perhaps the Four Seasons. She checks in and furiously answers e-mails from Los Angeles until it’s time for a breakfast or a dinner or a midday meal with executives and creators. She wears her favorite “travel blazer,” a designer jacket bejewelled on the breast pocket with the words “Art is truth.” And, though she often stays “in country” for only a day or two at a time, she likes to schedule a “slate meeting” so that the local development team can fill her in on upcoming programs. On an afternoon not long ago, she was kicking off one such meeting at the company’s Latin American headquarters, inside one of the tallest skyscrapers in Mexico City.
“Next time, I’ll get to stay for a week, so I won’t have to eat twenty-four tacos in twenty-four hours, like last time,” she said to the room of assembled staff members.
Bajaria told me that the ideal Netflix show is what one of her V.P.s, Jinny Howe, calls a “gourmet cheeseburger,” offering something “premium and commercial at the same time.” She praised the Latin American group for its recent track record of making slick telenovelas that draw large audiences outside Spanish-speaking regions.
“It’s been a lot of learning for other countries to do the type of very commercial things that this team did early on,” she said. A onetime winner of the Miss India Universe beauty pageant, Bajaria has glossy black hair that she often pulls into a high ponytail. Her voice, which she joked is classic “L.A. Valley Girl,” contributes to the impression that she’s younger than her fifty-two years. Although she is ceaselessly on the road for work, she says that she never experiences jet lag, a claim corroborated by her invariably peppy demeanor. “Is there anything you still think we need to do in terms of making a bigger bet, or a fresh swing?” she asked.
Francisco Ramos, the natty V.P. of Latin American content, pointed to a screen at the front of the room and said, “We are taking the next step, because our competitors are going to be where we were five years ago.” In the following hour, the executives ran through some two dozen projects. Ramos boasted that a true-crime series about a Mexican kidnapping scandal had generated so much interest that “even the President talked about it for four days in a row,” and that in Colombia, where Netflix was filming a big-budget miniseries adaptation of Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” they were working to secure permission to transplant a rare chestnut tree onto the set. Another executive described “La Flor Más Bella,” a comedy that would feature a spirited morena girl navigating a high school full of “Whitexicans.”
“I’m getting such strong ‘Never Have I Ever’ vibes,” Bajaria replied, referring to the American Netflix comedy co-created by her friend Mindy Kaling.
Bajaria’s job isn’t to decide which shows get made. According to the company, there is no master list of all the “local-language originals” in progress at any given time. But the decentralized system offers opportunities for what Bajaria calls “cross-cultural learnings.” Under her leadership, Netflix acts like a universal power converter, plugging in and adapting successful show formats to different parts of the world. Bajaria asked the Latin American staffers whether they were “working with the Middle East” to remake some of their more popular shows.
“Yes, Egypt is working on ‘Who Killed Sara?,’ and they are doing ‘Dark Desire’ in South Africa,” Ramos said. “France is also making a telenovela, and we’re supporting that.”
“Oh, in France?” Bajaria said approvingly.
At the end of the meeting, she left the team with a blunt exhortation to continue scaling up: “It’s not a science. It’s a big creative endeavor. But it’s about recognizing that people like having more.”
When Netflix was founded, in 1997, its ambition, almost quaint in retrospect, was to overhaul the movie-rental business. Users would subscribe to the service online and receive DVDs through the mail, a concept that Netflix’s co-founder Reed Hastings liked to say he came up with after borrowing “Apollo 13” from a Blockbuster store and incurring a forty-dollar late fee. (His co-founder, Mark Randolph, has said that the story, like most marketing spin, is only “emotionally true.”) But in 2007 the company introduced the nascent technology of streaming; for certain titles in the Netflix library—initially about a thousand and, soon, many more—users on their home computers had the novel option to “watch now.” In 2010, the platform offered a digital-only subscription and Hastings told investors, “Three years ago, we were a DVD-by-mail company that offered some streaming. We are now a streaming company which also offers DVD by mail.”
According to “It’s Not TV,” a recent history of HBO by Felix Gillette and John Koblin, Netflix began looking into making original programming in 2010, after HBO declined to enter a licensing deal. It was evident that, in order to build a lasting streaming library, the platform would have to control its own content. Television, at the time, was in the midst of the so-called golden age of cable, and executives at channels including HBO, AMC, and FX had reinvigorated the medium with ambitious serialized dramas that cultivated critical acclaim over mass appeal. Ted Sarandos—who served as Netflix’s chief content officer before adding the title of co-C.E.O. with Hastings, in 2020—wanted to make the same kinds of shows for cord-cutters. He once said that the company’s goal was “to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.”
One of Sarandos’s longtime collaborators, Cindy Holland, helped lead the company’s initial push into television. During her tenure as the V.P. of original series, Netflix brought in such early shows as the political thriller “House of Cards,” the royal roman-fleuve “The Crown,” and the spiky women’s-prison comedy “Orange Is the New Black.” For a time, Netflix succeeded in positioning itself as a leading purveyor of bold, buzzy TV, and Holland’s sensibility was closely aligned with the shows it made. Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the creator of the ambitious animated Hollywood satire “BoJack Horseman,” which ran on the platform for six seasons, told me, “Cindy to me was Netflix.” Then, in 2020, Sarandos promoted Bajaria into the new role of global head of television, giving her oversight of all TV programming both in the United States and abroad. At the same time, he let Holland go.
The shakeup was dissected in the industry trades, perhaps in part because of what Bajaria described to me as the media’s appetite for “pitting two women against each other.” But her elevation over Holland was most noteworthy as a sign of Netflix’s evolving priorities. Bajaria had come up in the industry through the high-volume, high-spectacle world of network-TV movies and miniseries, working for two decades at CBS and at NBC Universal. When she joined Netflix, in 2016, she led the company’s first forays into reality TV and brokered deals to rapidly expand the platform’s catalogue. In 2019, she began leading non-English TV programming as well. Sarandos told me that in Bajaria and Holland he had “two unbelievably strong candidates” but that he went with the one who he felt best embodied Netflix’s “breadth of programming” and increasingly global focus. Netflix won’t disclose any internal financial figures, but one former executive told me that the choice was “not shocking” from an economic perspective. “Some of Cindy’s shows were tough. People made them for prestige, and for their friends,” she said. Bajaria’s team more readily embraced the company’s new objective, the executive said: not only to compete with cable but to “replace all television.” Sarandos told me that Netflix’s strategy today is to function as “equal parts HBO and FX and AMC and Lifetime and Bravo and E! and Comedy Central.” In one conversation, from his seventeen-acre estate in Montecito, he invoked the “golden gut,” the idea that for old-school TV executives “things worked because they picked them and they made them work.” The role of Netflix’s leaders today is entirely different. When you’re trying to grow as quickly as possible in as many places as possible, you can’t afford to get “bottlenecked behind one sensibility,” Sarandos said.
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.)
“I have this theory that I won because I didn’t see it as a step in my career,” Bajaria told me. “I didn’t want to be an actress. I didn’t need it.” After her victory, a Bollywood studio offered her an acting contract. She instead bought a copy of the Hollywood Creative Directory and sent a slew of cover letters to studios inquiring about entry-level jobs. She got two interviews. One, at TriStar Pictures, yielded nothing. During the other, at CBS, she learned that Joan Yee, an executive in the movies-and-miniseries department, had been looking for a new assistant. Bajaria persuaded Yee to take her on for a monthlong trial, and ended up staying in the role for almost two years.
The movies-and-miniseries department churned out dozens of programs a year, including schmaltzy epics, true-crime dramatizations, and the long-running “Hallmark Hall of Fame.” Owing to the “female-skewing” audiences for such fare, it was one of the few corners of network television in which women executives dominated. “It was so rare to work for a woman, let alone a woman of color,” Bajaria said of Yee, who was born in Hong Kong. Another of Bajaria’s superiors at the time recalled her as “strategic and savvy” and very charismatic. In 1997, Bajaria accepted a job offer at Warner Bros. Studios, but she ended up back at CBS, two months later, after a departing executive recommended that she take his place. She was twenty-seven. The superior told me, “I don’t think anybody ever got promoted out of the assistant pool before.”
Bajaria found her first major success, in 1999, with a Joan of Arc miniseries starring Leelee Sobieski, which was made on a tight schedule, over one winter, and was nominated for thirteen Emmys. In 2002, she was promoted to run the movies-and-miniseries department. Many people who have worked with Bajaria described her uncommon decisiveness. Creative decision-making can be agonizing, especially when many millions of dollars are on the line. Bajaria does not overthink. A colleague in movies and miniseries, who asked not to be named, said, “The thing is, she’s not an intellectual. She’s smart. There’s a difference. She’s bold, and that’s what it takes. I don’t have that gene, and that’s why my career only went so far. You need to be able to say yes and keep forging ahead.”
TV networks are the steamships of entertainment, hulking and difficult to redirect. Many of Bajaria’s older colleagues at CBS had worked their way through the ranks and then sat in plum positions for decades. “The men around me kept telling me, Your job is so great,” she recalled. But she saw that even her department’s biggest programs, including a three-hour Elvis “television event” starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, had trouble competing with addictive new network series such as “Desperate Housewives,” and that young cable companies were eager for new original programming. In 2006, she persuaded the president and C.E.O. of CBS, Leslie Moonves, and the president of CBS Entertainment, Nancy Tellem, to let her launch an in-house cable studio, a production hub operating under the umbrella of CBS but able to license to other outlets. The company didn’t offer much support, and most of her projects languished in development, but the job led to an offer, in 2011, to revive the in-house studio at NBC Entertainment, under the name Universal Television. Bob Greenblatt, the chairman of NBC Entertainment at the time, told me, “I knew she was immensely capable of volume. She also had this ingratiating way about her, where people were drawn to her.”
NBC Universal had recently found success with the workplace sitcoms “Parks and Recreation” and the American version of “The Office,” and they’d signed several creators from those shows, including Mindy Kaling, to over-all deals. In 2011, Kaling and Bajaria brought the network a script for a new comedy about a high-achieving but lovelorn Indian-American doctor. When NBC passed, Bajaria promptly took it to Fox, where it became “The Mindy Project.” The next year, she pulled a similar move with Michael Schur, the co-creator of “Parks and Recreation,” and the pitch for “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” a police-station comedy. Kaling told me, of Bajaria, “It was a little strange to be pitching outside of the network. All of us were really excited that she was so open-minded about where a show could go.”
Another market for new series was budding in the realm of streaming. Hulu put out its first original program, a news digest called “The Morning After,” in 2011. The same year, at the end of a licensing meeting with MRC Entertainment, an executive mentioned to Sarandos that he was shopping around a drama titled “House of Cards,” with David Fincher attached to direct. HBO had already put in an offer, but Sarandos and Holland beat the studio out by buying two seasons up front, without a pilot—an extraordinary commitment at the time—for an astronomical hundred million dollars. While the series was in development, Netflix secured the rights to “Lilyhammer,” a crime comedy starring Steven Van Zandt, to serve as what Holland describes in “It’s Not TV” as “the canary in the coal mine,” allowing the company to practice coördinating a show launch across multiple territories. Pioneering the “binge” model, Netflix put out all eight episodes at once. In the following years, Bajaria sold a string of successful comedies to streamers, including “The Mindy Project,” to Hulu, after it was cancelled by Fox, and “Master of None”—a show from Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang that Schur executive-produced—to Netflix. In 2014, when NBC balked at “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” a mildly edgy sitcom about a cult escapee, Bajaria went back to Netflix. Tina Fey, who co-created “Kimmy Schmidt,” told me, “I think that maneuver saved that show.”
Bajaria said that her knack for selling projects to other companies may ultimately have worked against her at Universal. “I knew when we won Golden Globes for ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine,’ it was embarrassing to us, because NBC should have bought that show,” she said. On the Friday before Memorial Day, in 2016, Greenblatt called Bajaria into his office and informed her that he was letting her go. Greenblatt told me, “It was just moving bigger pieces around. She had sort of already reached the top of that place in the company.” Bajaria found the firing humiliating. “It’s this reckoning with your identity,” she said. “I came up from a family of car washes, and Universal was my car wash, you know? I hired everybody there, I created the culture.” One executive she knew told her to see the dismissal as a rite of passage. “He said, ‘You’re actually somebody in this business because you got fired,’ ” Bajaria told me. The week after Labor Day, she received a call from Sarandos, asking her to come to Netflix’s L.A. headquarters for a meeting.
Amuch touted tenet of Netflix company culture is “radical candor.” In that spirit, many of Bajaria’s content meetings incorporate discussion of “learnings,” including lessons gleaned from shows that have failed. One afternoon at the L.A. offices, she gathered with a flock of young development executives from the unscripted department, which handles reality and documentary series. Bajaria ran it during her first three years at Netflix. “It’s always fun to see this crew,” she said.
A minute later, a picture of the cast of “Dated and Related” appeared on a screen at the front of the room, and Bajaria playfully groaned. The show was a twist on the “villa reality” format of series such as “Love Island”: six pairs of single siblings cavorting in a tropical locale while serving as each other’s wingmen.
“The idea was, Who knows you better than family?” the show’s lead executive, Sean Hancock, said. “It makes sense on paper. We thought it would be deliciously awkward.” In practice, though, to many people the name “Dated and Related” suggested a show about incest.
“They sleep in the same room!” Bajaria said. She had not stood in the way of the project, but she’d questioned the choice of title at a meeting before it had gone into production. This put her in the convenient position of now being able to good-naturedly remind them of her own better judgment. At one Netflix foreign office, an executive telling Bajaria about a flop had seemed mortified. Hancock was more sanguine.
“Look, I fought very hard for the title,” he said. “We wanted to lean in to cheeky and loud.”
“Yeah, the title. I was not a fan,” Bajaria said with a laugh.
The staff moved on to presenting upcoming shows, and a department manager described Netflix’s “first foray into the survival-competition space”—“Outlast,” set in the Alaskan tundra.
“So I watched this,” Bajaria said. “With ‘Survivor,’ there’s a beautiful island and some ocean and pretty people. This was interesting, because I was, like, it’s cold and gray. And every person has a hat on?” She moved her manicured hands in circles around her face, as if trying to conjure up a reason the show should exist.
The manager replied, “Although they might not look as good in bikinis, the cast is amazing.”
Talk moved on to franchise opportunities, including a reality-show spinoff of “Squid Game,” which an executive from London explained would feature four hundred and fifty-six contestants, as in the original, and a $4.56 million prize. “There’s life-or-death decisions, but we want to do all that without, you know, the death,” she said.
“On this show they can’t kill anybody?” Bajaria quipped.
“That’s for Season 2,” Hancock replied.
Under Bajaria, the unscripted department made the popular “Queer Eye” reboot and a flurry of dating shows and novelty cooking competitions. But it was her parallel responsibilities, as the head of licensing and co-production, that allowed her to amass power within the company. Executives liked to boast of “the Netflix bump,” the platform’s ability to bring new audiences to other companies’ shows by streaming their archives. Series such as “The Office” and “Breaking Bad” had enjoyed spikes in ratings on their home channels after Netflix released the old seasons for commercial-free binge-watching. Through what the company called co-licensing, Netflix could get in on such deals earlier in a project’s formation, offering financing in exchange for the rights to première it internationally. In so doing, they could rebrand shows such as NBC’s “Good Girls” and the CW’s “Riverdale” as Netflix originals abroad. This model also allowed Bajaria to continue scooping up shows that networks had discarded. When Lifetime cancelled Greg Berlanti and Sera Gamble’s stalker thriller “You” after one season, Bajaria turned it from a co-licensed series to a Netflix original. In Season 3, it hit the platform’s Top Ten in ninety-four countries.
Sarandos has said that Netflix is oriented around “saying yes in a town that’s built to say no.” In licensing, Bajaria occasionally followed this edict by saying yes to content that others within Netflix had already rejected. In 2017, Holland’s department passed on a pilot that the CW had commissioned but not picked up, a comedy called “Insatiable,” about a vengeful, formerly plus-size beauty queen. Shortly thereafter, Bajaria bought it—since there was a pilot, it could technically count as a licensing arrangement. The show aimed for John Watersesque camp but was for the most part clumsily provocative. Critics panned it, but it ran for two seasons, and Bajaria told me, “It did really well for us.” In a piece in the Hollywood Reporter, an anonymous producer said that “Insatiable” marked a “Walmart-ization” of Netflix as the platform increasingly prioritized voracious acquisition over curatorial discernment.
The most successful showrunners I spoke to said that Bajaria backed their vision, even if she wasn’t personally invested in the material. Michael Schur recalled that, when he approached her, years ago, with an idea for a miniseries adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s notoriously dense thousand-page novel “Infinite Jest,” she said, “I’ve never read the book, and I’ll tell you right now I’m not going to read the book. But if this is the thing you’re passionate about then let’s figure out how to do it.” (Schur optioned the book, but nothing came of it.) Shawn Levy told me that the only input from Bajaria on “All the Light We Cannot See” regarded the casting of Aria Mia Loberti, an unknown visually impaired actress. Bajaria called Levy for a “gut check,” she said. “I wanted to make sure—was he feeling pressure, or did he think creatively it would be better?” But she assured him she would back his choice.
Bajaria’s loyalty to certain creators is paired with an ethos of extreme deference to the viewer. When I brought up a 2021 Dave Chappelle standup special whose jokes about transgender people prompted a walkout by members of Netflix’s staff, Bajaria said, “Our audience can decide whether they want to click Play or not.” She seemed perplexed that many critics had been disgusted by the slog of pornographic violence in Ryan Murphy’s recent Jeffrey Dahmer bio-pic, “Monster.” Of the many scathing reviews, she said, “Are you just trying to be contrary?” The series made the Top Ten list in ninety-two countries. In November, Netflix announced two additional seasons centered upon other serial killers.
I asked Bajaria about her own favorite shows, but she was noncommittal. “I mean, I’m a fan of TV. I work in TV. I watch everybody’s things,” she said, adding, “People have very different tastes, and I have no disdain for whatever those things are. What is quality? What is good versus not? That’s all subjective. I just want to super-serve the audience.”
She was less guarded about her proclivities during a private jet ride to the Netflix offices in Madrid. A company publicist had intended to be present during all of our travels, but she had tested positive for COVID, so Bajaria and I were alone on the plane. A flight attendant wearing a small black beret offered us hot towels, and Bajaria perused the wine list.
“You don’t have Sauvignon Blanc?” she said. “Do you have anything like a Sauvignon Blanc? Maybe a rosé?”
The flight attendant suggested a very dry Chardonnay, and Bajaria wrinkled her nose. “O.K., I’ll try it,” she said. Then she turned to me and added, “If you write this part, you have to say that I drank the Sauvignon Blanc, because it cannot be my reputation that I drank Chardonnay.”
Netflix’s first European production hub opened in 2019, in Tres Cantos, on the outskirts of Madrid, with five soundstages. This past year, it added five more and a postproduction studio with thirty editing rooms. The morning after our flight to Madrid, Bajaria toured the facilities, which are part of a larger complex called Madrid Content City. She was heading to the Rome office later that day, so she arrived with her rolling suitcase and a Louis Vuitton tote bag monogrammed with the bright-blue initials “BB.” The low-slung concrete building smelled like fresh paint. Pilot scripts from around the world decorated the walls. A studio manager told Bajaria, “We have tested the latency from here to Turkey, and basically we can get all Europe connecting with no issues.”
Some Netflix shows made abroad are clearly angling to travel widely. The recent German sci-fi series “1899,” about a group of passengers on a nineteenth-century steamship, features a U.N. summit’s worth of international actors, all speaking in their native tongues but often miraculously able to understand one another—except when the plot requires that they don’t. The series was shot outside Berlin on a revolving virtual production stage that can generate photorealistic 3-D backdrops of locations anywhere. TV executives have always sought shows that appeal to all four core demographic “quadrants”—male and female, under and over twenty-five. The globalized mélange of “1899” feels reverse-engineered to capture viewers in all four corners of the Earth. But, as Bajaria herself acknowledged, making international hits isn’t a science; she told me that the success of “Squid Game” across the world came as a complete surprise. Just after New Year’s, the “1899” showrunners announced “with a heavy heart” that their series had been cancelled.
Most of the local-language originals that the platform produces are smaller programs that one analyst described as a “retention tool,” to keep viewers on Netflix after they’ve watched (or not watched) the latest splashy global show. In Japan, subscribers may be served “Narcos” but also dozens of anime series; in Scandinavia, “Ozark” but also plenty of Nordic noir. In India, there are original programs not only in Hindi and English but in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Marathi, Kannada, and Bengali. In Tres Cantos, the Madrid team discussed a new reality show called “Lady Tamara,” following a marquesa whom the New York Post has described as a Spanish Kim Kardashian. It was released last August and reached the Top Ten only in Spain, which Netflix says is by design. Most viewers elsewhere are probably unaware that it exists, because the platform’s personalized algorithm won’t serve it to them. Instead, the company will simply make similar reality shows in other territories. The Madrid team mused about which Netflix dating franchise would better translate to a Spanish audience, “Love Is Blind,” about couples who get engaged sight unseen, or “The Ultimatum: Marry or Move On.” The latter already had a foreign remake under way in Johannesburg, one of Netflix’s first nodes of production in Africa. “Elite,” a “Gossip Girl”-style Spanish teen soap, was being remade in India, set in a private school in New Delhi, albeit with “less sex,” as Bajaria joked.
Netflix executives repeatedly emphasized to me the work that they do to bolster entertainment “ecosystems” abroad. In Tres Cantos, Bajaria met, seemingly for my benefit, with a group of aspiring Spanish screenwriters and filmmakers from the company’s “Grow Creative” initiative, a program to “up-level local talent pools,” including crew workers, many of whom are then put to use staffing Netflix productions. Dean Garfield, the company’s Jamaican-born, Singapore-based V.P. of public policy, told me that when cultivating relationships with new countries he promises that Netflix will foster both economic growth and “a deeper affinity for their culture around the world.” When this pitch doesn’t work, Netflix has sometimes been able to pay its way to coöperation. In 2020, after years of tense diplomacy with France’s proudly insular entertainment industry, including a standoff with the Cannes Film Festival, the company achieved a delicate détente by committing to investing heavily in what a press release called “French series and films for French people.” Netflix is now one of the country’s largest producers of content, releasing about twenty films and series a year, though perhaps its best-known program set in France is still Darren Star’s American ex-pat rom-com “Emily in Paris,” which is about as French as a Starbucks croissant. An indigenous streaming platform called Salto, founded by France’s major TV broadcasters in 2020, failed to take off with viewers and is reportedly in danger of being sold off or shut down.
Outside of Europe and North America, the ARPU—average revenue per user—tends to be lower. A subscription in India costs as little as a hundred and forty-nine rupees, or a dollar eighty-one. But it is relatively cheap to make shows abroad, even in wealthier countries. A single episode of the most recent season of “Stranger Things” is rumored to have cost Netflix thirty million dollars. The entirety of “Squid Game” reportedly cost only $21.4 million. As other major players in the so-called American streaming wars seek new revenue streams, they are increasingly following Netflix overseas. Apple TV+ will soon début its first French production, the thriller series “Liaison,” starring Vincent Cassel, one of the country’s biggest stars. In Madrid, I saw a billboard for “García!,” an HBO Max spy series that was released this past fall. But an industry leader told me that the ultimate payoff of this strategy is far from certain for any streaming company. “ ‘Building a global brand’ is a topic sentence in their meetings right now, but the same constraints that affect programming locally are affecting them globally,” he said. “Their resources are contracting. And the jury is still out.”
One former Netflix executive said that the company’s increasing international focus has frustrated some L.A. staffers. “The U.S. viewer is more valuable than anywhere else, but there was this rush to get ourselves all over the world,” the executive said. “They let the U.S. languish a little bit.” American creators who have commercial hits get to take another “fresh swing.” But I spoke to several showrunners of more niche series who said that the company became less accommodating of their projects as the platform swelled in scope.
Raphael Bob-Waksberg recalled that when “BoJack Horseman” débuted, in 2014, Netflix promoted it generously. The series skewered the cynical self-justifications of Hollywood types, and there was something poetic about it airing on the upstart platform seeking to transform the industry. “I had Netflix team pride,” Bob-Waksberg said, adding, “I cannot imagine another time or place where ‘BoJack’ got the acclaim and number of seasons that it did.” At some point, though, he noticed that the platform was auto-skipping the credits of the show. In a product meeting, he raised an objection, and an executive explained that doing so helped viewers breeze through episodes. As Bob-Waksberg recalled it, he joked that they might as well simply eliminate the story line of Princess Carolyn, one of five protagonists, to which the executive replied, “Who is Princess Carolyn?” Bob-Waksberg told me, “That’s when I knew it was the beginning of the end.” He produced another excellent animated show for Netflix, Lisa Hanawalt’s “Tuca & Bertie,” but the company cancelled it after one season.
For projects afforded the time, TV’s serialized format can have distinct creative advantages. Ensembles gel from one season to the next. Standout supporting actors get written into starring roles. Some of the most beloved TV shows were slow to catch on with audiences. “Seinfeld” was considered a failure in its first season. “The Wire” lagged in Season 2 before yielding twelve of the finest episodes of television ever made, in Season 3. One creator described Netflix’s initial attitude toward original programs as, “Maybe people won’t find it Season 1. But by Season 3? We just want to be proud of the things in the library.” According to Bajaria, though, the company today has little patience for shows that don’t perform immediately. The Netflix algorithm insures that content “is served right up to you in front of your face, so it’s not like you can’t find it,” she told me. “At some point it’s, like, Is the budget better spent on a next new thing?”
Bajaria pointed out that TV shows have always sunk or swum with the ratings. Michael Schur told me that what feels different in streaming is the capriciousness of the platforms’ data-driven demands. “The sands are shifting all the time,” he said. “It’s very hard to learn what the rules are.” He said that Netflix shared no audience figures with him for “Master of None” and called this “the slipperiest move in history,” given how closely the numbers determine a show’s fate. (According to Netflix, showrunners today are provided “additional information.”) Another creator, who wished to remain anonymous, had a well-received series on Netflix for multiple seasons before it went “on the bubble”—an industry term for a limbo period during which the company decides whether to renew. The creator recalled that the series was ultimately cancelled without a clear explanation. (Bajaria told me, of the company’s approach to cancellations, “If it was successful, or if it had enough of an audience, we would be the first ones to renew it.”) “It kind of felt like the tech side was the cart that was leading the horse,” the creator said, adding, “None of these individual shows are the product they are selling. They are just selling more Netflix.”
The company does still occasionally green-light more esoteric projects, with what Bajaria described as “right-sized budgets” reflecting their marginal viewerships. Among them are two of my favorite recent Netflix offerings, Tim Robinson’s sketch series “I Think You Should Leave” and “Derry Girls,” a coming-of-age comedy set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Sarandos said that one of his own favorite Netflix originals of all time is the 2016 meta-sitcom “Lady Dynamite,” from the cult comedian Maria Bamford, which the company cancelled after two seasons. He repeated the common industry adage that comedies don’t travel well. “As human beings we likely cry at the exact same things, but we all laugh at something totally different,” he said. In the early two-thousands, the author and entrepreneur Chris Anderson coined the term “the long tail” to describe the idea that the Internet was fracturing what was once a single mass culture into a “mass of niches,” so that the future of the entertainment industry lay not in producing megahits that please everyone but in catering to many distinct groups of avid fans. Sarandos told me that Netflix has jettisoned that thinking. “There was this misnomer about the Internet all along,” he said. “There is no long tail without the big head.”
One showrunner I spoke to described the current streaming environment by borrowing an infamous William Goldman comment about Hollywood, that “nobody knows anything” about what’s going to work. When I began following Bajaria, last summer, Netflix was still on the back foot, particularly in the trade press. “People love to click on stories about us,” she said. “Netflix has great S.E.O.” She was advising her content teams to tune out the “noise” and the financial pressures and focus instead on what they could control. As she put it, “What we can do is be always audience-centric: Who is this show for? If you like this show, then we’re gonna give you this other thing you like. If you do that, people are gonna watch the shows, and all of those things will help the stock.” Netflix’s stock price has not recovered from its springtime slump. But by the end of the year Bajaria was reminding me that three recent series—the new season of “Stranger Things,” “Dahmer,” and Tim Burton’s Addams Family spinoff, “Wednesday”—had become its biggest English-language releases of all time. “Look at the hit rate,” she told me. “That’s all I’m saying.”
One morning during my visit to L.A., I joined Bajaria on a “hiking meeting” along a trail near her home in Studio City. It was a warm day, and she was planning to have lunch at her favorite açai-bowl place before holding a virtual meeting with the Korean content team. She was getting over a head cold and had suggested taking the three-mile loop backward, a less steep route, though she seemed chagrined to be getting a lighter workout. “It’s ten per cent easier this way,” she said.
Bajaria did not want her home life reported on for this piece. But she was eager to tell me about the teen-age son and two college-age daughters she shares with her husband, Doug Prochilo, and about the fact that Rekha, her mother, cooks dinner for a couple of hundred people at a Hindu temple each week. (Ramesh died in 2000.) Bajaria said that she doesn’t socialize much within Hollywood. On the hike, though, a pair of women waved emphatically when they saw Bajaria come around the bend.
“Hi, hi, hi!” Bajaria said.
One of the women remarked that she could see Bajaria’s house from the trail’s highest point. “I always look down and am, like, ‘Hi, Bela!’ ” she said. “But then I was, like, Is that creepy?”
“No, you can visit my house anytime you want!” Bajaria said. When the women passed, Bajaria explained to me that she knew them from the neighborhood, though both worked in television.
“I guess I do have industry friends,” she told me later.
With us on the hike was Jinny Howe, the V.P. of drama series for the U.S. and Canada—and the coiner of “gourmet cheeseburger”—who told Bajaria about an American remake of a South Korean series that her team was developing. In 2019, Netflix partnered with the South Korean production company Studio Dragon to develop a spate of K-dramas. One of them was “Crash Landing on You,” a series from Park Ji-eun, a leading South Korean showrunner, about an heiress from Seoul who accidentally paraglides into North Korea and enters into a star-crossed romance with a D.P.R.K. Army officer. Netflix had licensed it for global distribution, but, unlike “Squid Game,” or even the South Korean legal drama “Extraordinary Attorney Woo,” it did not find a gigantic audience outside of Asia. Howe explained that they were now looking into an American remake.
“And how do we do that?” Bajaria asked. “Because that show was so specifically about North and South Korea.”
“So, I think we’re gonna see if maybe we can make that divide a little bit more symbolic,” Howe said, adding, “We’re looking into sci-fi.”
“Well, you need a world, right?” Bajaria replied. “Because it is the culture clash of two people who don’t fit together but were meant for each other.” In the span of an L.A. power walk, they’d freed the show from its pesky geopolitical specificity and sent it somewhere more universal, perhaps literally into space. Bajaria spoke of the unique reach that such a partnership could bring Park. She added, “I do think that’s beneficial for creators like her, who are, like, ‘Oh, I can do bigger.’ ” ♦