This simple difference flips all of its incentives. It means that Netflix has a reason to satisfy every new customer, not just the ones in the most prosperous markets. Each new title carries subtitles in 26 languages, and the company is creating high-quality, properly lip-synced audio dubbing in 10 languages. For years, Netflix has roiled the film and TV business in Hollywood with its billions. Now it’s taking its money — the company spent $12 billion on content in 2018 and is projected to spend $15 billion this year — to film and TV producers in France, Spain, Brazil, India, South Korea and the Middle East, among other places.
Because it is spending so much on shows from everywhere, Netflix has an incentive to get the biggest bang for its buck by pushing them widely across its user base. Its algorithms are tuned toward expanding your interests rather than narrowing them. As a result, many of Netflix’s shows are watched widely beyond their local markets. Dystopian thrillers seem to travel particularly well. In 2016, the company added the Brazilian dystopian thriller series “3%,” a bleak look at the near future; about half of its viewers were from outside Brazil. When the German thriller “Dark” dropped in 2017, it hit the company’s Top 10 list in 136 countries, and about 90 percent of the series’ viewers were outside Germany.
“The industry here feels liberated by it,” Dario Madrona, one of the creators of “Elite,” told me. According to Netflix, “Elite” has been seen by 20 million viewers around the world. That level of popularity is huge for a teen drama from Spain; an audience of 20 million would be a decent hit on American broadcast TV. “We’re starting to feel, I think, like how you guys in the U.S. have felt for a long time,” Mr. Madrona said. “You can create a show there, and you can be seen all over the world.”
Netflix’s push abroad has not been without incident. Late last year, the company earned international condemnation for pulling an episode of “Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj” from its service in Saudi Arabia. The comedian had criticized the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, after the C.I.A.’s conclusion that the prince had ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident Saudi journalist.
Netflix argued that it had no choice but to obey the Saudi legal authority, which said the episode violated a statute, if it wanted to continue operating in that country. The company’s executives suggested that bringing the Saudis the rest of Netflix — every other episode of “Patriot Act” or shows that explore issues of gender and sexuality, like “Big Mouth” and “Sex Education” and “Nanette” — was better than having the entire service go dark in that country.
It’s certainly a slippery argument — but I believe it’s a valid one. Netflix does seem to be pushing cultural boundaries and sparking new conversations all over the world. After it plastered Bangkok with billboards advertising “Sex Education” last month, a conservative Thai political party filed a complaint against the company for airing the racy British comedy, which the party called “a great challenge to Thai society.” The young, progressive Thai internet responded in fury, and in the outrage, people started talking about actual problems in Thai society, like the lack of sex education and the high rates of teenage pregnancy.
Consider, too, “Nanette,” in which Ms. Gadsby, who was virtually unknown beyond Australia before Netflix, delivers a groundbreaking stand-up performance about, roughly, art history, homosexuality, women’s rights and the tragic limits of comedy. The show was eye-opening to me, and I live in the progressive wonderland of Northern California; to a young lesbian in India, where people like Ms. Gadsby are not easily visible in media, it might have been a revelation. In fact, “Nanette” was a hit across Southeast Asia and India.
It’s legitimate to ask how long Netflix will be able to keep up this cross-border conversation — whether, as it keeps growing, it will have to make legal or moral compromises with local censors or other would-be cultural arbiters. But I’m optimistic about its chances. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the internet did turn out to bring the world together after all?
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