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When Netflix’s Peter Friedlander hunkered down at his Palm Springs home at the start of the pandemic, he was overseeing a number of drama series and showrunners under Cindy Holland. A year and a half later, he and his dog, Pablo, remain in the desert, though Holland is long gone and Friedlander has a considerably bigger job. In June, the 46-year-old Duke grad was tapped as global TV head Bela Bajaria’s No. 2, charged with scripted series in the U.S. and Canada, a purview that also includes stand-up and overall deals. In late August, the once press-shy Friedlander, who arrived at the streamer in 2011 as its first dedicated employee on the original series team, opened up about the new gig.
When you arrived at Netflix, it was not the Netflix we know today. What lured you?
I’d been with Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman at Playtone for almost nine years, and I could’ve worked there forever, but what drew me to Netflix was the excitement over House of Cards. I’d never been at a studio or network before, so I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I was just bringing producorial experience into the enterprise. And I’d already fallen in love with Netflix as a user through Battlestar Galactica, which I’d watched over and over and over again.
How many people said you were crazy for making the move then?
I recognize that it isn’t exactly a small place, but is it simply coincidence that you and co-CEO Ted Sarandos were both raised in Phoenix?
It’s a very funny coincidence, and we actually went to the same mom-and-pop video store to rent VHS tapes growing up. I was always drawn to film and TV, but I didn’t understand that it could actually be a career for me. It was only when I was in L.A., studying urban planning at UCLA [for graduate school], that I needed a job and a friend had given me an opportunity as a PA and driver.
It was called All the Rage, and I drove Gary Sinise. Honestly, I learned all about the business during these great conversations in the car. Then he invited me to continue on as his assistant. It was my way in.
Now you’re in charge of a huge swath of content. Where do you see the growth opportunities?
The overall deal team is new. We have talent that we’ve been working with for a long time and other talent that’s new, so there’s clearly a lot of opportunity to grow those relationships. And we’ve continued to look for different points of view and underrepresented voices as we build out the group. That’s a real focus for me. And comedy is a part of the business that I haven’t overseen before, and it’s a thrill for me. The stand-up coming out of the service is next level. Something like the Bo Burnham special [Bo Burnham: Inside] changes the game for what can come from that group.
You’ve had to give thought to what people will want to watch on the other side of this pandemic. Where are you placing your bets?
We need to continue to program to that variety — some escapism, some comfort. But I don’t know that you can predict everything. Everyone’s having a very personal journey through this time, so far be it from me to know psychologically what everyone’s needs will be. We’re fortunate that we have the ability to program broadly.
There’s been a lot of talk in town about how Netflix has been pushing for broader fare. How do you strike a balance between prestige and commercial?
We’re looking for shows with a POV. Certainly a show that you think could be broad could end up being niche, and something that you think could be niche could end up being broad. We’ve seen so many breakouts in that way, including Queen’s Gambit, that I’d caution against putting that nomenclature around certain titles.
Earlier this summer, Kenya Barris was candid with me about his Netflix departure, saying: “The stuff I want to do is a little bit more edgy, a little more highbrow, and I think Netflix wants down the middle.” What do you make of his characterization?
I can’t speak to Kenya’s experience [the two didn’t work together], but I do think we want all types of storytelling. I really want to emphasize that there is no mandate toward “down the middle.” We’re trying to guide people toward the best version of the story they’re trying to tell. If it’s meant to be edgy, it should be edgy.
You’ve inherited this expensive stable of overall deals. Presumably, you’ll have to think through whose you keep or move on from and how many more you sign. What is or will be your calculus?
It’s important going into those relationships that we’re eyes wide open, saying, “This is what Netflix hopes to get from the partnership, and, likewise, we want to know what you want.” We need to have those conversations up front versus, “Let’s just make a deal.”
There were a lot of raised eyebrows when FX announced it was doing two more American Story spinoffs with Ryan Murphy. As someone paying him nine figures to make content for Netflix, how did that sit with you?
I’m new to the Ryan relationship. What we’ve been focused on is his new slate, with Monster and The Watcher and some other things. I’m very enthusiastic about the business we have with him. And for me, it’s just beginning.
It also added to the speculation that Ryan could return to what is now Disney when his deal at Netflix expires in a few years. Dana Walden told me it would be her dream to have him back at her studio there. How are you feeling about his future at Netflix?
Again, I’m really happy with our relationship with Ryan, and I’m not surprised that he’s a popular guy. His shows are really fantastic — it’s why he’s always in demand.
Looking around the landscape, what’s the project that you wish was yours?
I think Mike White’s vision on White Lotus was very special, and Jac Schaeffer’s on Wandavision was extraordinary.
There’s been plenty of chatter in the writer and representative world about how the market for high-end packages may be starting to dry up, or at least slow down. Has that been your experience?
I’ll be honest, I don’t see this as a trend that I’m experiencing as a buyer at all.
You’re still buying at the same rate?
We’ve been seeing incredible projects come in, and the team has been, I’d say, enthusiastically jumping at opportunities. I mean, there’s a lot of production issues that are tied to the pandemic, whether it’s trying to schedule actors or book stage space, but I don’t see it having changed anything on the development side.
Fair enough. Looking ahead, what do you see as your number one challenge?
We got to where we are at Netflix by taking massive swings, and so one of the most important things for me to do as a leader is to make sure that that fearlessness is always supported. My fear is that it could go away.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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