Inside Netflix's Surprising TV Chief Shake-Up

Jesse Grant/Getty Images; Taylor Hill/FilmMagic

Netflix executives Bela Bajaria and Cindy Holland.

On Wednesday, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos gathered employees for a virtual town hall to explain the rationale behind the TV executive shake-up that had rippled through Hollywood the evening prior. He had decided to promote Bela Bajaria to vp global television and say goodbye to his longtime right-hand Cindy Holland, he told staffers, because he wanted to streamline the reporting process within the TV group. It was something that had been on his mind since he took on his larger role at the streaming giant earlier this summer.

Netflix rank-and-file — as well as a group of senior leaders whom Sarandos met with before the town hall — were devastated and shocked by the sudden change in leadership. Holland, after all, had worked alongside Sarandos at Netflix for nearly 20 years and many considered her the obvious choice to one day take over for her boss as chief content officer. But as Sarandos looks to Netflix’s future, it’s Bajaria, a veteran Hollywood executive who has made a series of key programming decisions since joining Netflix less than four years ago, whom he believes is ultimately the right woman for the job.

Sources say the restructuring was the result of a desire on Sarandos' part to implement a clear hierarchy at the streamer as well as increase its focus on global expansion. With room for only one exec at the top — Bajaria — there was no job for Holland as multiple sources believe she would have been highly unlikely to shift and report to Bajaria. (Though sources say that was never presented as an option.) Rumors of tension between Bajaria and Holland have persisted for some time, even though Bajaria had, upon arrival, shrewdly negotiated a position where she, like Holland, reported directly to Sarandos.

Sources say Bajaria and Holland's relationship was strained from the start. The duo first met when Bajaria's Universal TV moved Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt to Netflix after NBC passed on the Ellie Kemper comedy. After Bajaria was pushed out at Universal TV for failing to supply enough content to the broadcast network, Holland reached out with a job offer. But Bajaria, sources say, had already forged her own relationship with Sarandos. "I don't think Ted set up the best environment," one former Netflix insider says of the siloed structure at the time. "That's when they came up with 'There's different paths to yes.'" (Case in point: Holland passed on Insatiable after CBS TV Studios shopped the pilot that was developed for The CW. Bajaria picked it up at Netflix and the critically panned revenge comedy over-performed in its first season, prompting a renewal.)

Holland is a veteran of Netflix's culture and, as one former insider notes, "Will call Ted out on his shit." And she would encourage her team to voice concerns if they disagreed with a programming move. "Cindy represents a world where you tell Reed [Hastings] and Ted when you disagree. But no one really likes that; they don’t want to be told when people don’t like what they did," says a former Netflix staffer.

(Netflix declined comment.)

London-born Bajaria, a 20-year veteran of the traditional studio system who joined Netflix in 2016, quickly managed her way through the ranks and built up her skillset in growth areas for the streamer, starting with TV and film licensing from U.S. studios and co-productions from U.S. networks. In March 2019, as local-language programming became another top priority, she segued to a new role overseeing scripted and unscripted series in nearly all of Netflix's international markets. She has spent the past four years collecting an impressive track record of in key acquisitions (You, All American) and global content (The Witcher, Money Heist). Those skills paired well with her decades of relationships with top domestic writers and producers.

It's that recent international experience, as many note, that’s particularly valuable to Netflix as it looks to its next phase of growth. In the U.S. and Canada, where the company has been operating for years, growth has begun to slow as it edges closer to market saturation with nearly 73 million paid members. (Domestic sub growth has gotten a bump this year due to the ongoing pandemic.) But global markets present an opportunity for significant subscriber gains, especially as Netflix looks to further distance itself from competitors like Disney, WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal, which are all in various stages of expanding their own streaming platforms for global audiences. During the first two quarters of this year, the Europe, Middle East and Africa region contributed the most new subscribers with 9.7 million net additions.

Bajaria, whose rapid rise to the top was also fueled and likely accelerated by an offer from NBCUniversal to oversee the conglomerate's entertainment portfolio, now has oversight of English and local language original series, scripted and unscripted series and limited series.

"Cindy had no global experience," says another former Netflix exec with knowledge of the streamer's programming performance. "The real power of Netflix is not the stuff we talk about [think Stranger Things]; it's The Witcher, Money Heist, Dark and all the international stuff — not making more Ozark. And [Bela] made smart acquisitions and spear-headed unscripted, too."

While Holland’s departure is shocking in a town where executives are known to hold onto senior roles long after they’ve worn out their welcome, it’s in line with the Netflix culture. The company, started in Silicon Valley in the late 1990s, is known to let go of underachievers and regularly relies on a practice known as the Keeper Test to evaluate whether an employee should remain at the company. That’s led to some high-profile departures over the years, including previous CFO David Wells and former head of HR Patty McCord, who helped craft the very environment that ultimately led to her dismissal.

The shake-up comes as co-CEO Reed Hastings has been on the media circuit this week promoting his new book, No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, in which he discusses at length the philosophy around this clinical approach to leading. In an interview with THR that took place before the news about Holland broke, Hastings made clear that not even senior executives at the company should become too comfortable. “You have to earn your job every year at Netflix,” he said, likening his employee base to a championship-winning professional sports team.

Holland, for her part, helped transform Netflix from its DVD-by-mail roots into the most Emmy-nominated outlet in Hollywood. She oversaw the company's transition from licensed content to scripted originals and, as head of English-language series, delivered hits including House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, Narcos, Stranger Things, Haunting of Hill House and When They See Us. While still a priority for Netflix, Bajaria's rise signals the increased value of global originals and acquired content. Holland also oversaw the company's push into the overall deals business with a string of landscape-shifting pacts to top showrunners including Ryan Murphy ($300 million), Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss ($250 million), Shonda Rhimes ($100 million) and Kenya Barris ($80 million), among others.

"The buck stops with Ted but I'm sure he will try to blame Cindy," a person with ties to Netflix says of the talent spending spree. Holland also, per sources, delivered a series of pricey misses including The Dark Crystal (an "expensive disappointment," per one source connected to the streamer).

While Netflix came to town with the promise of a new playbook, Sarandos is increasingly shaping the streamer as a more traditional Hollywood conglomerate.  In addition to upping Bajaria to a role alongside global film head Scott Stuber, Sarandos this week promoted vp content acquisition Amy Reinhard to head of studio operations. She will now oversee physical production, IP management and create a casting team at the streamer as Sarandos, to whom she reports, simplifies his executive ranks and creates more traditional Hollywood roles at the company. Reinhard joined Netflix in late 2016 in the content acquisitions group. She arrived at the streamer after spending more than a decade at Paramount Pictures, where she was president of worldwide TV licensing and distribution.