Netflix's Unscripted Chief Reveals Release Strategy, 'Love Is Blind' Plans and Dave Chappelle's '8:46' Backstory

ONE TIME USE ONLY-THR-Brandon Riegg_Photographed by Josh Telles -H 2020
Josh Telles

Brandon Riegg, who oversees nonfiction series and comedy specials, also discusses the streamer's reality hot streak, comedy specials during COVID-19 and flexible release patterns: "We're not afraid to experiment."

When Netflix nonfiction head Brandon Riegg greenlit Floor Is Lava two years ago, he couldn't have predicted how captive his 2020 audience would be. But with little else to do in the face of the novel coronavirus, Netflix subscribers (and many of their children) have devoured the streamer's first family-friendly game show, which quickly vaulted to No. 1 on the service, just as Riegg's other shows The Circle, Love Is Blind and Too Hot to Handle.

Now, as rivals scramble to fill slots with foreign transplants and virtually shot fare, Riegg and his staff of 45 have a slate of new programming, including another season of Queer Eye and two new dating series, Indian Matchmaking and Love on the Spectrum, that will take them through year's end. It's enough to keep the 43-year-old exec, who came from NBC in 2016 and took over the department (which also includes stand-up) in 2018, coolly confident that Netflix's hot streak will continue. Which is not to suggest that the University of Pennsylvania grad doesn't have garden-variety stresses, including how and when to safely resume production on his several dozen projects.

As the son of a State Department employee, Riegg spent his childhood traversing the globe, settling for a time in Taiwan, China, England and Sri Lanka. Now, as he programs nonfiction content for Netflix's nearly 183 million subscribers worldwide, that early education in global tastes is proving useful in ways he had never anticipated. "I thanked my parents a few years ago," he says. "I told them, 'You didn't know it at the time, but everything I had growing up helped prepare me to work here.' "

Speaking virtually from his West Hollywood home, which was largely packed for an upcoming move to the Hollywood Hills, Netflix's vp nonfiction series and comedy specials opened up about rollout plans, resuming production and that Dave Chappelle set.

How are you thinking about resuming production? Have you begun?

We have a long runway, so the things we are looking at resuming production on, or are slowly inching back to production, are really for the beginning of next year. We're being very deliberate and methodical. The [shows] that lend themselves more to restarting, frankly, have been our nature and natural history shows, where it's literally two people in South Africa taping a penguin colony. 

I've heard The Circle is eyeing a restart, too, in what producers are describing as a hermetically sealed environment. How confident are you in those plans? And is it a model you can replicate for other series?

Part of the plan is saying, "What are the [shows] that lend themselves best to having a really tight ship, if you will?" And on The Circle, Channel Four [team] have been great partners in terms of the diligence around how to do it. With that show, the campus is essentially this hermetically sealed place where the players never meet. So that one felt a little bit easier to get into compared to something like Rhythm + Flow, which has a lot more moving parts and is not isolated. With shows like that, we're not in a rush to [resume].

Between the testing that is necessary and the slower pace that's required, none of this will come cheap. Are you prepared to spend more? And what happens when someone gets sick? 

We're lucky that we work at a place where they put people first. The cost hasn't been an impediment for us. And the production has contingencies, but, look, safety's first and foremost, and we'd pause production if it became problematic — and that's why we're not really rushing back.

Have you seen a shift in what viewers are interested in since the lockdown began?

There hasn't been one type of programming that we've seen pop, necessarily. We've done our best to have positive, aspirational and relatable programming and things that have been diverse, and I think all of those elements people respond to and that's been consistent. If anything, [viewers] just have the time during quarantine to sample more of the shows. 

A few weeks after George Floyd's killing, Dave Chappelle released a searing video, 8:46, via Netflix. When did you become aware of the set and what were the discussions about putting it on YouTube — where it already has 26 million views — versus on your service?

Robbie Praw, who heads up the comedy team for me, had been in communication with Dave and his team, and they said, "Hey, Dave just shot this piece, it's really meaningful to him and we'd like to get it out to as many people as possible." And we have a lot of different levers at Netflix: the platform, our YouTube channel and all of our social media channels. The discussion was how can we get this in front of as many people as possible as quickly as possible, and I think where it ended through our social channels and YouTube was the right place for that piece. We're incredibly proud of it.

Will there be others in that format, since I don't foresee comics returning to packed clubs any time soon?

We're still working through it, in terms of what's safe and what's the best experience. Stand-up is inherently a very personal thing — it's different than shooting a series, and so a lot of it is about being communicative with the comedians. They lean on us for guidance in terms of what's feasible and safe, so there's been a lot of dialogue. I also think given everything that's been happening, it's impacting what they're going to be covering, and they need time to work through that. But when they have something they want to say, then we go, "OK, how do we pull it off?" And there are a lot of different ideas. There's the drive-in idea. There's doing it on Zoom. There's having a very socially distant crowd in a wide open space.

There seems to be more of a willingness to experiment with release patterns in reality at Netflix. Why is that, and what have you learned from releasing shows in batches?

We're not afraid to experiment. To be honest, when we shot Rhythm and Flow, The Circle and Love Is Blind, we didn't initially [plan] to do a staggered rollout. It was only when we looked at how the shows ended up that we felt they lent themselves to being parceled out. We expected them to be watercooler shows and, because of the way they were structured, there were going to be a lot of things for people to talk about on social media. With the staggered release, we almost allowed the focus to be on whatever the storylines were in those episodes, so it built conversation and suspense week to week and streamlined whatever the social buzz was. Other shows like Cheer or Queer Eye [which Netflix released all at once] aren't really the same. People love those shows, but [the commentary on social media] was much more about expressing how much you love Jerry or how much you love JVN [Jonathan Van Ness].

Would you consider a more traditional one episode per week?

We're all about member satisfaction and member control, so I don't think I'd ever go for a one episode a week rollout because that's probably too limiting. Maybe we do a finale or a reunion stand-alone episode, if you really want to eventize it, but if people love a show, you don't want them to feel like they want more and there's not more available. And that's what you're very likely to get with a single episode release. I think doing three or four at a time is a better model.

How do people consume your competition shows? I know there was some concern early on about people jumping to the end.

My theory was always if we're doing our jobs right and making an enjoyable show, you wouldn't want to shortchange yourself by just jumping to the end. Like, the enjoyment is in the journey. So, that's been the approach and, yes, there are some people who have jumped to the end, just like you see some people jump to the end of a book, but we've also seen people do that and then go back and watch the show. The vast majority watch in order.

You are programming for a global audience. How do tastes vary around the world?

Certain types of programming are just universally relatable. We can all relate to wanting to find that special someone or wanting to find a connection with somebody. If you start with an interesting premise and you're telling that story in a compelling way, people everywhere respond to it. The question for us is when we start looking at doing local versions, how much bigger will they be in the host country? Like, Brazil loved Love Is Blind, so if we're going to do a Brazilian version of that show, you'd expect it would be even bigger than the American version in Brazil. Those are the things that we still have to start testing and figuring out.

How do you decide when to do a local version versus rely on the U.S. version?

We have a bunch of great local programming executives who look at the formats that we have and say, "I think that would lend itself to a local version." So it's not us dictating it. And those local executives have to adapt it and make it authentic to that local audience. It can't be a copy and paste with different contestants.

In a very short time, you've dabbled in almost every nonfiction genre. Any you'd like to tackle but haven't yet?

We have home property and home renovation shows coming, but we haven't put anything on the service yet. A traditional game show like Deal or No Deal or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? would be good. The Last Dance [which premiered on Netflix outside of the U.S.] was good confirmation that we could do more in sports, too.

Did your data give you any indication that your most recent game show, Floor Is Lava, was going to open as big as it did? It was No. 1 on the Netflix viewing chart in the U.S.

We're not able to predict those things that accurately. I think Netflix, as a network, approaches it with an understanding of different categories of programming. We look at categories and then go, "What are different options we can offer here?" So, in food and cooking, we were really deliberate in the beginning, saying, "Here are three very different offerings: Nailed It, Sugar Rush and Final Table." Similarly, when we talked about family-friendly game shows, it was saying, "OK, here's a first foray into that." You have to learn by doing it — and we're still very much in the early stages of [figuring out] what members are responding to. 

With doc series, there's still some confusion about Lisa Nishimura's group, which produced Tiger King, and yours, which produced Cheer. How do you differentiate the two?

There's a ton of collaboration and communication between our teams, but the easiest way to describe it is: My team generally works on doc series that are envisioned as having multiple seasons right out of the gate. So, Last Chance UChef's TableCheer, things that feel like they could go on for many, many seasons. Her limited docs and film team do docs that are usually envisioned as one and done. And the rationale was, those series are, in essence, like features that just happen to be chopped up — whether it's into three parts like the Aaron Hernandez one or eight parts like Tiger King.

We are going through a cultural reckoning. How are you responding to a need for greater inclusivity in front of and behind the camera?

As a global platform, we're looking to represent the diversity in the world, and we take it seriously. Dating Around is a great example, but even if you look at the makeup of Love is Blind, arguably the breakout couple was an interracial couple. There's diversity in Too Hot to Handle or Queer Eye, [look at] the "Fab Five." We can all do better and we're continuing to work on it, but I also think we've made the commitment from the start without even being as aware of it, and you [can see] it in our shows. I mean, Marie Kondo is amazing. She's a Japanese woman who doesn't really speak English and she headlined her own show, [Tidying Up With Marie Kondo], which was a global phenomenon, whether you spoke Japanese or not. 

We've seen a handful of unscripted series on other networks fire castmembers in recent weeks over accusations of racism. How does the community evolve its casting searches and standards in a genre that historically has relied on controversial characters?

It is a good reminder for all of us in nonfiction of how seriously we need to take the vetting process. When you're casting someone to be on a TV show, you're giving that person a microphone and a platform, right? Without a doubt, you don't want to give a platform to people who have a known history of hate speech or violence or racist comments. These are things that are clearly nonstarters. So it's a responsibility that we take incredibly seriously, and the best thing that you can do to guard against this [kind of problem] is to be focused and diligent in your vetting process.

What does the vetting process entail at Netflix?

We have a dedicated team of execs who go through and look at anybody we're considering having on a show. It's case by case, depending on what the show is. Dating Around is obviously putting people in a different environment than Nailed It, so it's hard to get into the specifics. But you're looking at past social media posts, you're doing a proper background check, and you hope that you can vet thoroughly in advance, and then when things that are troubling or problematic come up, you have the conviction to say, "[That person] is not worth it."

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in the July 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.