Who would have guessed that the breakout hits on American television this year would be Squid Game, a survival story from Korea, and Lupin, a French thriller about a Black gentleman thief? Even Bela Bajaria says there was no way to predict it. But as the head of global television at Netflix, it’s her job to find the next big show— and if it comes from an unexpected corner of the planet, all the better.
“There has been this pervasive idea that only Hollywood exports stories, which I find really limits who gets to tell those stories,” Bajaria says. “We’re pushing beyond that and opening the doors to creators of all different types around the world.”
Netflix is the world’s largest streaming service, which makes Bajaria one of the most influential programmers in television. Show by show, she and her colleagues are changing our viewing diet. In the last two years, the company says American viewing of non-English language programs has grown 67 percent. Viewing of Japanese anime in the U.S. has doubled; so-called K-dramas from Korea have tripled. Competitors say they’ve seen similar trends—shows from one country doing remarkably well elsewhere.
COVID-19 has obviously played a role: People hunkered down at home and looked for interesting things to watch. If a series from Germany or Mexico trended on TikTok or turned up on best-shows-to-binge-on lists, people binged on it. Netflix makes it easy to cross borders; it dubs shows in 34 languages and offers subtitles in 37. Subscribers can see a larger slice of the world as a result.
Bajaria knows a bit about worldviews from childhood experience. She was born in London to parents who had come from India. They moved to Zambia when she was little, and brought her to Los Angeles when she was 9 years old. “I was this Indian brown girl and I also had a British accent, and that was too many things at an age when fitting in felt more important,” she says. “When you’re a kid, you just want to belong. So I ended up watching a lot of TV to get rid of my accent.” She says she learned American culture by binging on Bewitched and The Brady Bunch—and sounded like other Americans in two months.
“Now,” she says, “I embrace being different and think it is a superpower. My 9-year-old self didn’t know that.”
Remember that television is still very much a business, and Netflix, with something like 175 million viewers in the U.S. (the company is selective about what numbers it releases), is now growing most rapidly in other countries. So it’s looking for Brazilian shows that attract Brazilian viewers, or Spanish shows that will build a following in Spain. If that also means a more diverse offering of programs for subscribers in Tennessee or New Jersey, it may broaden viewers’ perspectives, but it also helps the bottom line.
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