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Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos apologized for his communications to staff about Dave Chappelle’s latest comedy special The Closer, noting that he “screwed up” and should have acknowledged that his employees were “in pain” due to the streaming giant’s decision to air the special.
Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter by phone on Tuesday evening ahead of staffers’ planned walkout and rally on Wednesday, Sarandos asserted that Chappelle’s special was in line with the company’s stance toward “artistic expression” and said he didn’t believe it would be “appropriate” to add any disclaimer about harmful content ahead of the special. (The below interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)
You’ve written two memos to Netflix staff about your thoughts on the Dave Chappelle special and particularly how you don’t believe that content on-screen translates to real-world harm. That statement has gotten some pushback from staff and organizations like GLAAD. Has your stance on this changed since then?
No, my stance hasn’t changed. I can tell you I screwed up those communications in two ways. One of them was, I should have first and foremost acknowledged in those emails that a group of our employees were in pain, and they were really feeling hurt from a business decision that we made. And I, instead of acknowledging that first, I went right into some rationales. And so first of all, I’d say those emails lacked humanity, in which I like to and I do generally communicate with our teams.
I would say the other one was that — this is the problem when you have a leaked email out of context, is it’s part of a conversation already in progress, and that line of causing harm in the real world was way over-simplistic and talking about something very specific that we were talking about earlier that day. Of course, content, storytelling causes change in the world, sometimes hugely positive and sometimes negative. That change that storytelling can generate in the world is what inspires me to come to work every day. That’s exactly what we do. You’ve heard me talk about this in interviews after interviews, and every employee in this company has heard me sing the praises of the work that we do exactly in this space. So it was just very clumsy, internal communications that went public.
Just to clarify, you do believe that content on-screen can translate to harm?
I 100 percent believe that content on-screen can have impact in the real world, positive and negative.
But in terms of your stance on keeping the Chappelle special [on Netflix], that has not changed?
When we think about this challenge we have to entertain the world, part of that challenge means that you’ve got audiences with various taste, various sensibilities, various beliefs. You really can’t please everybody or the content would be pretty dull. And we do tell our employees upfront that we are trying to entertain our members, and that some of the content on Netflix you’re not going to like, and so this kind of commitment to artistic expression and free artistic expression is sometimes in conflict with people feeling protected and safe. I do think that that’s something that we struggle with all the time when these two values bump up against each other.
But I do think that the inclusion of the special on Netflix is consistent with our comedy offering, it’s consistent with Dave Chappelle’s comedy brand and this is … one of those times when there’s something on Netflix that you’re not going to like.
The trans employee resource group that’s organizing [Wednesday’s] virtual walkout, they’re expected to present you with this list of demands. Is Netflix willing to adopt any of those demands?
For the last couple of days, it’s been just listening to folks and hearing out how they’re feeling and what they’d like. I want to say that we are deeply committed to inclusion on-screen and behind the camera and in our workplace.
Going forward, I want to make sure that everyone understands that we are deeply committed to supporting artistic freedom with the creators who work at Netflix. We’re deeply committed to increase representation on screen and behind the camera, and we’ll always learn and improve on how to address these challenges as they arrive.
The employees are not asking that the special itself be taken down, but that other steps, such as adding a disclaimer to the beginning [of the special] is something they’re looking for. Is that something you’d be willing to consider?
The content is age-restricted already for language, and Dave himself gives a very explicit warning at the beginning of the show, so I don’t think it would be appropriate in this case.
How do you plan to restore morale, especially with your LGBTQ employees, given the events of the past week?
This is one of the taxes on any organization of working remotely and not working together and growing rapidly during this period of time. We have a lot of folks who are new to Netflix and have never met anybody here. They’ve been working from home since their first day, and so probably what they haven’t experienced is that kind of reinforcement of the allyship that the company has toward the LGBTQ+ community, including massive investment in content and creators and storytellers to represent LGBTQ+ stories on-screen and around the world, and I think at unprecedented levels.
This group of employees felt a little betrayed because we’ve created such a great place to work that they forgot that sometimes these challenges will come up, and that’s what I mean about not recognizing that upfront, that folks would be hurt.
You and Reed [Hastings] have spoken at length about radical transparency, but given recent leaks and the employee who was fired, can Netflix remain committed to this culture of transparency among employees?
We’re deeply committed to the culture of transparency. And it also depends upon a great deal of trust with our employees that we continue to secure, but we don’t plan on changing any of our internal operations around that.
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