As Employees Walk Out, Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos Admits He ‘Screwed Up’ Chappelle Response

As Employees Walk Out, Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos Admits He ‘Screwed Up’ Chappelle Response
Photo: LIONEL BONAVENTURE / Contributor, Getty Images

Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos is walking back his repeated defences of Dave Chappelle’s new standup special, “The Closer,” admitting that he “screwed up” internal communications just hours before employees were set to stage a virtual walkout.

In separate interviews with Variety and Deadline on Tuesday, Sarandos admitted that Netflix’s recent moves to curtail employee backlash over the special — including temporarily suspending three employees for crashing an executive-level meeting, firing a pregnant organiser, and doubling down on claims that “content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm” — had maybe not been the savviest way to handle a burgeoning crisis at the company.

“I had a group of employees who were definitely feeling pain and hurt from a decision we made. And I think that needs to be acknowledged upfront before you get into the nuts and bolts of anything,” Sarandos told Variety. “I didn’t do that. That was uncharacteristic for me, and it was moving fast and we were trying to answer some really specific questions that were floating.”

Sarandos also reversed course on prior statements about the impact of the platform’s storytelling, admitting that “of course storytelling has an impact on the real world — sometimes positive and sometimes negative.”

“That is why I work here, that content actually can make the world a better place through our storytelling, through onscreen representation and all those things,” Sarandos told Deadline. “So it was a gross simplification.”

In the wake of a fiery public outcry over perceived transphobia embedded within Chappelle’s special, Netflix’s trans employee resource group had swiftly mobilized to coordinate a work stoppage, and had also presented management with a list of demands that included getting the company to acknowledge that transphobic content causes harm. Other demands included the hiring of multiple trans creators to make both scripted and unscripted programs, and significantly stepped up investments in trans and non-binary talent “comparable to our total investment in transphobic content.”

On October 17, Bloomberg reported that Netflix paid Chappelle $US24.1 (AU$32) million for “The Closer” — a staggering sum, even by the platform’s deep-pocketed standards. That number came in spite of the fact that, according to internal data leaked to Bloomberg, Chappelle’s previous special, 2019’s Sticks & Stones, had achieved an “impact value” of $US19.4 (AU$26) million — meaning it cost more than the value it generated. The disclosures also revealed that the 2019 special had scored a 0.8 on the company’s “efficiency,” scale, which evaluates the streamer’s programming in terms of cost and reach (a 1 is considered a break-even score is ).

Those data points had been significant because they constituted a rare leak for Netflix — a company that prides itself on its internal transparency, but which expressly forbids employees from sharing the information it supplies them with. Netflix later confirmed that the pregnant employee that was fired — a member and key organiser of the trans employee resource group — had been terminated on suspicion of leaking the information to Bloomberg.

Ahead of the planned walkout — framed by trans employees and allies as a “day of rest” — Netflix issued a statement “apologizing” for the harm it caused and owning up to the existence of blind spots within the company.

“We value our trans colleagues and allies, and understand the deep hurt that’s been caused. We respect the decision of any employee who chooses to walk out, and recognise we have much more work to do both within Netflix and in our content.”