Why Netflix goes local. In conversation with Greg Peters, Chief Product Officer
There was a time when nobody would have dreamt of proposing an Italian TV series like Suburra to a Korean audience. Or a German one, like Dark, in India. And how many chances would a flattering biography of drug dealer such as “Pablo Escobar” have had to ever leave Colombia? Not many. Because before Netflix started producing local TV series, in their original language, there was only one perspective on the narcos stories: the American one. «And that was such a shame», says Greg Peters, Netflix chief product officer.
It must be self-suggestion. But when Greg Peters enters the room where meet, at the Web Summit in Lisbon, the first thing I think is that he looks like one of the heros of the TV series that he helps takes around the world. Tall, thick hair, winking smile and a runner’s physique, it’s not hard to imagine him chasing the bad guy and finding time to comfort the victim by saying: «Don’t worry, I’m here, and everything is going to be ok».
«Location and language do not really matter», he continues, bringing us back to reality. «In the world of beautiful stories there are no borders, and a different point of view is what turns every experience in a discovery».
Despite his All American hero look, Greg Peters is really keen to position himself as a real cosmopolitan. A person who knows no boundaries, walls or preconceived labels.
«When it comes to stories it makes no sense to differentiate audiences based on categories such as nationality, age, gender or income. The same series can engage an elderly Frenchman or a Japanese teenager». Peters arrived to this conclusion long before the Netflix algorithms proved him right: when, as a kid, he spent his free time in the only arty cinema in the Kansas town where he lived, and was always surpised of the few propositions he was given that were not Hollywood productions. «I had an insatiable desire for foreign films, for different perspectives, for flavors and atmospheres that I could not find in American movies», he recalls.
After a degree in Physics at Yale and a series of high-tech jobs, Greg Peters finally ended up working for the startup that had changed his life in 1997 by delivering DVDs straight to his doorstep: Netflix. A company that — he states quite proudly — is a winner mainly because of its ability to think outside the box when it comes to creative output.
«How can one believe that one place can have the monopoly on beautiful stories? Of course, Hollywood attracts screenwriters from all over the world. But centralizing production often comes at the expense of the authenticity of narratives», he says. «My job as Chief Product Officer is to create a bridge between people and content: to design, package and communicate it so that it gets to destination at the right time and in the best possible format».
Obviously this is a job for technology experts. The acceleration in machine learning, that is the ability of computers to analyze data and create connections, now allows to fully customize the visualization experience. And Netflix everything about how its TV series or movies are watched: what support is preferred at home and at what times of the day. Netflix knows if you were glued to the Crown for a full weekend but when you got into Orange is the New Black you preferred to take it slowly. It is aware of your breaks, of which scenes you consider more intense, which trailers you love.
All these matching operations between contents and viewers could obviously be done even a few years ago. But just like Facebook, Uber, Amazon and all the tech giants, it’s only when the quanity of Big Data is huge that projections can be turned into refined personalized strategies. That work increasingly well as the amount of data grows. So: the more TV series you watch, the higher the chances Netflix has of coupling you to other shows you will like.
It is on the basis of this assumption that, despite the 6 billion dollars debt accumulated during its exponential growth (source: the New York Magazine, June 2018), Netflix can afford to spend 8 billion per year in new productions to enlarge its audience.
Investors firmly believe in this development model: Netflix’s capitalization has now surpassed that of Disney, reaching 150 billion dollars.
The international expansion of the streaming giant began three years ago and now the platform «is in 190 countries, and collects information on 137 million subscribers», says Peters. «It’s a huge technological challenge, because it’s necessary that the products are visible from any type of support, with any kind of connection. The way people use the internet is different from one country to another, the number of devices is staggering. And the way in which products are proposed must be personalized». Which is also the reason why the image you see as a “billboard” for a series is not the same that your neighbor sees. And its changes continuously.
How much can algorithms do to help Netflix be creative in its contents proposals? Peters minimizes: «It would be possible to work by merely following what data indicates. Probably even to change stories according to whoever watches them. But it is good to ask yourself if all that is technologically feasible is also desirable. And I can assure you that it is not the algorithms that lead Netflix to believe in one story rather than another. Because our success is based on the creativity of the writers and on the authenticity of their stories. We give them cutting-edge production tools and facilitate the dissemination of their works. We invest for instance in top class dubbing, often using the same actors to maintain the authentic character of narration. In return we want diversification and personalization».
In fact, when Netflix started distributing “local” series worldwide (the first was the Brazilian 3%, followed by Suburra), it did so regardless of the inputs that came from data. «Everything indicated that a South American story had no chance of breaking through internationally, but it was a boom», continues Peters. «We trusted our instincts, that told us that the “sanitized” American version of world events is no longer what people want. That people’s hearts beat when they see authentic stories, delivered from the point of view of passionate professionals inserted into a local culture. Because talented storytellers are capable of touching universal emotional cords like no algorithm can do».