Netflix Just Disrupted Itself. Why?

Cindy Holland and Bela Bajaria. Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Getty Images

If Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos are the public faces of Netflix, English-language content chief Cindy Holland has long been the heart and soul of the streamer’s domestic programming operation. As VP of original content, she oversaw day-to-day development of the foundational Netflix original series (House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black); greenlit two of its biggest current scripted hits (Stranger Things, The Crown); and, along with fellow Netflix vet Lisa Nishimura, pioneered the platform’s push into episodic docuseries with Making a Murderer. For hundreds of top-tier writers and agents and actors behind Netflix’s many shows, Holland was the big boss who made their dreams live or die. And now, she’s on the way out.

In a move stunning even coming during a summer already marked by multiple high-level TV land exec shake-ups, Sarandos said on Tuesday night that he had decided to put Bela Bajaria, currently head of international TV production, in charge of all original TV production at Netflix — scripted and unscripted, English-language or non-English, multi-season or limited-run. Promoting Bajaria essentially left Holland without a portfolio; she’ll exit the company within the next few weeks. By all accounts, Holland has been doing a great job, overseeing production of numerous successful series and helping Netflix continue its massive growth. That by itself would have made her forced exit unusual. But what makes this week’s development even more of a shocker is that Sarandos and Holland were for many years a sort of package deal, seen by many around Hollywood as having built the Netflix beast together. “They’ve created their own culture,” megaproducer Ryan Murphy told me back in 2018. “And a lot of that culture, I think, is a hybrid of Ted’s showmanship and Cindy’s beautifully modulated creativity.”

This is not to say the two were equals, either on paper or in reality. Sarandos, after all, recruited Holland to Netflix back in the early aughts, having previously been a friendly competitor to her when she worked at the legendary dot-com bubble failure Kozmo. (“At one time, Cindy and I were the only two people in the world buying DVDs for online video services,” Sarandos told me when I interviewed them together at Netflix headquarters a few years ago.) During our chat, the two had an easy chemistry, sometimes finishing each other’s sentences. Holland described just how close they remained, even as Netflix had expanded exponentially. “We’ve either shared an office or had offices next to each other for 16 years, so we spend a lot of time together, and we still do,” she said. And Sarandos was quick to note how instrumental Holland had been with the development of OITNB. “It was Cindy who immediately saw [the appeal of] Orange, which was the opposite of House of Cards in that it was completely undeveloped,” he said “It was a pitch, a book, and a great showrunner, and it was Cindy who saw that clarity right away.”

So What Happened?

The official word from Netflix insiders is that Sarandos, who earlier this summer was promoted to co-CEO of the company alongside Hastings, simply decided he wanted the company’s TV operations to mirror the structure of its film business, where Scott Stuber runs global film operations. The new position of VP of Global TV will have to balance Netflix’s ever-increasing portfolio of non-American productions with its more mature U.S.-centric operations, and Sarandos apparently decided Bajaria was better suited for this new global role. The shake-up underscores how Netflix sees its business evolving over the next few years: Most of its subscriber growth will come from countries other than the United States, making the development of shows produced outside America more of a priority than ever.

But it also seems plausible that Sarandos simply decided he needed to shake things up as Netflix prepares to enter its second decade of developing original content. (Though they premiered in 2013, House of Cards and OITNB were both greenlit in 2011.) The company founded by Hastings has in its DNA an almost ruthless efficiency, where employees regularly submit to public evaluations of their strengths and weaknesses. There’s no evidence Sarandos found Holland lacking by any measure, but history suggests it will get more difficult for Netflix to grow its subscriber numbers and stand out from rivals as it becomes a more mature company and, just as importantly, rivals such as Disney and WarnerMedia and Comcast get better at competing in the universe Netflix created. Maybe Sarandos figured a new set of eyeballs running content, and one focused on seeing things from a global perspective, would be a good way to avoid even a hint of complacency. Indeed, in 2018 Sarandos told me that he didn’t allow himself “time to do a victory lap” over what the company had achieved. “I never stopped and said, ‘mission accomplished,’ because there’s always the next thing,” he said. “We’re still in a rapidly growing business.”

What Bajaria Brings to the Table

Despite the growing importance of international content at Netflix, Bajaria is actually not a grizzled veteran of global production: She has only been in charge of non-English content since March 2019. She did, however, spend part of her first three years at Netflix identifying international series worth importing to the company’s U.S. service and finding U.S. shows which could work on Netflix outside of North America, such as Star Trek: DiscoverySarandos may also be thinking Bajaria is the best person to scale up international content because of how quickly she and her former NBCUniversal colleague Brandon Riegg built the company’s unscripted business. The two joined the company in 2016 and mounted a development blitz, working to produce shows in all major reality-TV categories. Early hits developed while Bajaria was still working on unscripted included Queer Eye and Tidying Up With Marie Kondo. More recently, the division (run solo by Riegg, and reporting to Holland, since March 2019) has struck gold with Love Is BlindThe Circle, and Floor Is Lava.

Before arriving at Netflix in 2016, Bajaria was very much entrenched in the broadcast TV business. After a brief stint hosting a weekly entertainment news show for a small Los Angeles TV station in the mid-1990s, she first made her mark as an exec developing TV movies at CBS in the late 1990s and early ’00s. (Your Buffering correspondent is old enough to remember meeting with Bajaria at her CBS Television City offices.) Bajaria kept the Eye’s TV-movie franchise going even after rival networks abandoned what was seen (and remains) a dead format for broadcast TV. She eventually left CBS for NBCUniversal, after a producer she once hired to make a miniseries — Robert Greenblatt (Elvis) — got a job running NBC and asked her to run the company’s production arm. At NBCU, Bajaria developed shows such as The Mindy Project and two future Netflix hits: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Master of None.

What Does This Mean for Netflix’s Content?

Bajaria’s promotion and Holland’s exit won’t dramatically change what Netflix subscribers see, certainly not anytime soon. For one thing, it’s important to keep in mind that while the best-known execs at the company obviously play a key role in determining what kind of shows get made at the streamer, Netflix remains remarkably decentralized. Mid-level execs have the power to greenlight projects without getting the thumbs up from a Holland or Sarandos-level boss. (Bajaria explained this process to me two years ago for my bigger story on Netflix, telling me she didn’t clear all of her greenlight decisions by Sarandos, just as Riegg didn’t run everything by her. Sarandos, she said, “knows strategy-wise and macro, but when we picked up those shows that you saw [at a company presentation], Brandon and his team bought those shows. There were no other layers other than the team deciding that those shows made sense.”) Bajaria could obviously shift priorities within the company, deciding for instance to make fewer American family comedies in favor of giving, say, Netflix South Africa more money to do gritty cop shows. But barring some sort of philosophical shift, Netflix is going to continue making tons of shows for all kinds of audiences, all with the goal of attracting — and more importantly these days, keeping — members.

Internally, however, the impact of Holland’s ouster is far less clear. She has close relationships with so many of the aforementioned development execs, many of whom have not worked with Bajaria. People I know from Bajaria’s past gigs in Network World have always raved about her; she has a great reputation. But she is also Not Cindy. Any time there’s an exec change at this level, there’s the possibility some underlings will decide they don’t want to be part of the new regime. Similarly, Bajaria could make changes of her own, leading to unexpected departures. (This is why her old friend and former boss, Bob Greenblatt, recently lost his job running WarnerMedia Entertainment.) I don’t think we’re about to see a mass exodus of execs at Netflix, but some minor amount of upheaval wouldn’t be a surprise.

The Really Big Picture

Maybe it’s the pandemic, but 2020 has seen more massive exec overhauls in one year than I can remember (and my memory goes back to the mid-1990s). NBCUniversal, Disney, ViacomCBS, and WarnerMedia have all gotten brand new CEOs, while Amazon recruited former Hulu and Sony exec Mike Hopkins to oversee its Prime Video and Amazon Studios division. In turn, some of those changes led to shake-ups at individual units such as NBC Entertainment, Disney+, HBO Max, and Warner Bros. TV.

As wild as things have been, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a couple of other significant shifts by year’s end or in early 2021. On the exec side, Disney’s direct-to-consumer business, particularly Disney+, is one place to keep an eye on. I also don’t think Jason Kilar is done making changes at Warner Bros.

What’s more, several big independent entertainment companies — think AMC Networks, Sony, and Lionsgate — remain the subject of sale rumors (but that’s been true for years now). I keep thinking somebody is going to make a play for Discovery Networks, whose portfolio of lifestyle brands (HGTV, TLC, Food Network, etc.) is just waiting to make the leap from cable to streaming. And while smart people I trust insist Shari Redstone isn’t looking to unload ViacomCBS anytime soon, the company needs to get bigger somehow. Maybe it buys AMC Networks, assuming the rumor Amazon is interested isn’t true? Or maybe Amazon decides to buy both ViacomCBS and AMC Networks, completely blowing up the broadcast, cable, and streaming worlds in one move.

There is zero evidence Amazon is considering any such move; I truly just made up that scenario. But given all the ridiculous things to have happened so far in 2020, maybe idle speculation is a smart way to forecast the future.

Netflix Just Disrupted Itself. Why?