I have been long so fascinated and amazed by so many aspects of Netflix. You're full of surprises, if I may say so. One of those surprises happened, I think about six years ago. So, the company back then was doing really well, but you were basically a streaming service for other people's films and TV content. You'd persuaded Wall Street that you were right to make the kind of radical shift away from just sending people DVDs, so you were doing it by streaming. And you were growing like a weed—you had more than six million subscribers and healthy growth rates, and yet, you chose that moment to kind of make a giant—really, a bet-the-company decision. What was that decision, and what motivated it?
Well, cable networks from all time have started on other people's content and then grown into doing their own originals. So we knew of the general idea for quite a while. And we had actually tried to get into original content back in 2005, when we were on DVD only and buying films at Sundance—Maggie Gyllenhaal, "Sherrybaby," we published on DVD—we were a mini studio. And it didn't work out, because we were subscale. And then, as you said, in 2011, Ted Sarandos, my partner at Netflix who runs content, got very excited about "House of Cards." And at that time, it was 100 million dollars, it was a fantastic investment, and it was in competition with HBO. And that was really the breakthrough, that he picked right upfront.
But that was a significant percentage of the revenue of the company at that time. But how could you get confident that that was actually worth doing? If you got that wrong, it might have been really devastating for the company.
Yeah, we weren't confident. I mean, that's the whole tension of it. We were like, "Holy ...!"—I can't say that. Yeah, it was scary.
And with that, it wasn't just producing new content. You also, pretty much with that, if I understand right, introduced this idea of binge-viewing. It wasn't, "We're going to do these episodes and build excitement"—boom!—all at one time. And that consumer mode hadn't really been tested. Why did you risk that?
Well, you know, we had grown up shipping DVDs. And then there were series, box sets, on DVD. And all of us had that experience watching some of the great HBO content you know, with the DVD—next episode, next episode. And so that was the trigger to make us think, wow, you know, with episodic content, especially serialized, it's so powerful to have all the episodes at once. And it's something that linear TV can't do. And so both of those made it really positive.
And so, did it work out on the math pretty much straight away, that an hour spent watching "House of Cards," say, was more profitable to you than an hour spent watching someone else's licensed content?
You know, because we're subscription, we don't have to track it at that level. And so it's really about making the brand stronger, so that more people want to join. And "House of Cards" absolutely did that, because then many people would talk about it and associate that brand with us, whereas "Mad Men" we carried—great show, AMC show—but they didn't associate it with Netflix, even if they watched it on Netflix.
And so you added all these other remarkable series, "Narcos," "Jessica Jones," "Orange is the New Black," "The Crown," "Black Mirror"—personal favorite—"Stranger Things" and so on. And so, this coming year, the level of investment you're planning to make in new content is not 100 million. It's what?
It's about eight billion dollars around the world. And it's not enough. There are so many great shows on other networks. And so we have a long way to go.
But eight billion—that's pretty much higher than any other content commissioner at this point?
No, Disney is in that realm, and if they're able to acquire Fox, they're even bigger. And then, really, that's spread globally, so it's not as much as it sounds.
But clearly, from the Barry Dillers and others in the media business, it feels like from nowhere, this company has come and has really revolutionized the business. It's like, as if Blockbuster one day said, "We're going to make Blockbuster videos," and then, six years later, was as big as Disney. I mean, that story would never have happened, and yet it did.
That's the bitch about the internet—it moves fast, you know? Everything around us moves really quick.
I mean, there must be something unusual about Netflix's culture that allowed you to take such bold—I won't say "reckless"—bold, well thought-through decisions.
Yeah, absolutely. We did have one advantage, which is we were born on DVD, and we knew that that was going to be temporary. No one thought we'd be mailing discs for 100 years. So then you have a lot of paranoia about what's coming next, and that's part of the founding ethos, is really worrying about what's coming next. So that's an advantage. And then in terms of the culture, it's very big on freedom and responsibility. I pride myself on making as few decisions as possible in a quarter. And we're getting better and better at that. There are some times I can go a whole quarter without making any decisions.
But there are some really surprising things about your people. For example, I looked at one survey. It looks like Netflix employees, compared to your peers', are basically the highest paid for equivalent jobs. And the least likely to want to leave. And if you Google the Netflix culture deck, you see this list of quite surprising admonitions to your employees. Talk about a few of them.
Well, you know, my first company—we were very process obsessed. This was in the 1990s. And every time someone made a mistake, we tried to put a process in place to make sure that mistake didn't happen again—so, very semiconductor-yield orientation. And the problem is, we were trying to dummy-proof the system. And then, eventually, only dummies wanted to work there. Then, of course, the market shifted—in that case, it was C++ to Java. But you know, there's always some shift. And the company was unable to adapt, and it got acquired by our largest competitor. And so with Netflix, I was super focused on how to run with no process but not have chaos. And so then we've developed all these mechanisms, super high-talented people, alignment, talking openly, sharing information—internally, people are stunned at how much information—all the core strategies, etc. We're like the "anti-Apple"—you know how they compartmentalize? We do the opposite, which is: everybody gets all the information. So what we're trying to do is build a sense of responsibility in people and the ability to do things. I find out about big decisions now that are made all the time, I've never even heard about it, which is great. And mostly, they go well.
So you just wake up and read them on the internet.
"Oh, we just entered China!"
Yeah, well that would be a big one.
But you allow employees to set their own vacation time, and...There's just—
Sure, that's a big symbolic one, vacation, because most people, in practice, do that, anyway. But yeah, there's a whole lot of that freedom.
And courage, you ask for as a fundamental value.
Yeah, we want people to speak the truth. And we say, "To disagree silently is disloyal." It's not OK to let some decision go through without saying your piece, and typically, writing it down. And so we're very focused on trying to get to good decisions through the debate that always happens. And we try not to make it intense, like yelling at each other—nothing like that. You know, it's really curiosity drawing people out.
You've got this other secret weapon at Netflix, it seems, which is this vast trove of data, a word we've heard a certain amount about this week. You've often taken really surprising stances towards building smart algorithms at Netflix. Back in the day, you opened up your algorithm to the world and said, "Hey, can anyone do better than this recommendation we've got? If so, we'll pay you a million dollars." You paid someone a million dollars, because it was like 10 percent better than yours.
Was that a good decision? Would you do that again?
Yeah, it was super exciting at the time; this was about 2007. But you know, we haven't done it again. So clearly, it's a very specialized tool. And so think of that as a lucky break of good timing, rather than a general framework. So what we've done is invest a lot on the algorithms, so that we feature the right content to the right people and try to make it fun and easy to explore.
And you made this, what seems like a really interesting shift, a few years ago. You used to ask people, "Here are 10 movies. What do you think? Which ones of these are your best movies?" And then tried to match those movies with recommendations for what was coming. And then you changed away from that. Talk about that.
Sure. Everyone would rate "Schindler's List" five stars, and then they'd rate Adam Sandler, "The Do-Over" three stars. But, in fact, when you looked at what they watched, it was almost always Adam Sandler. And so what happens is, when we rate and we're metacognitive about quality, that's sort of our aspirational self. And it works out much better to please people to look at the actual choices that they make, their revealed preferences by how much they enjoy simple pleasures.
OK, I want to talk for a couple of minutes about this, because this strikes me as a huge deal, not just for Netflix, for the internet as a whole. The difference between aspirational values and revealed values. You, brilliantly, didn't pay too much attention to what people said, you watched what they did, and then found the stuff that, "Oh my God, I never knew I would like a show about making horrible recipes, called 'Nailed It!'"
Called "Nailed It!" Right.
It's hilarious. I would never have even thought of that. But aren't there risks with this, if this go-only-with-revealed-values approach is taken too far?
Well, we get a lot of joy from making people happy, Sometimes you just want to relax and watch a show like "Nailed It!" And it's fun, and it's not stressful. Other times, people want to watch very intensive film. "Mudbound" was Oscar-nominated, it's a great, very intensive film. And you know, we've had over 20 million hours of viewing on "Mudbound," which is dramatically bigger than it would have been in the theaters or any other distribution. And so, we have some candy, too, but we have lots of broccoli. And you know, if you have the good mix, you get to a healthy diet.
But—yes, indeed. But isn't it the case that algorithms tend to point you away from the broccoli and towards the candy, if you're not careful? We just had a talk about how, on YouTube, somehow algorithms tend to, just by actually being smarter, tend to drive people towards more radical or specific content. It'd be easy to imagine that Netflix algorithms, just going on revealed values, would gradually—
Right, get too base—
We'd all be watching violent pornography or something. Or some people would, you know. But, how—
Not me! I'm the child of a missionary, I don't even think about these things. But—
But I mean, it's possible, right?
In practice, you're right that you can't just rely on algorithms. It's a mix of judgment and what we carry, and we're a curated service versus a platform like Facebook and YouTube, so we have an easier set of issues, which is: What are these great films and series that we acquire? But then within that, the algorithm is a tool.
But how—John Doerr just talked about measuring what matters. As a business, what matters, I presume, is fundamentally just growing subscribers. I mean, that's your unique advantage. Are subscribers grown only by the more time they spend watching Netflix, that is what will make them re-subscribe? Or is it even more about having shows that might not have been so much time as watching the whole season of "Nailed It!" or whatever? But just get into them more; they just think, "That was nourishing, that was extraordinary, I'm so glad I watched that with my family." Isn't there a version of the business model that would be less content but more awesome content, possibly even more uplifting content?
And people choose that uplifting content. I think you're right, which is, when people talk about Netflix, they talk about the shows that move them: "13 Reasons Why" or "The Crown." And that is way disproportionate and positive impact, even for the subscriber growth that you talked about is those couple big, memorable shows. But what we want to do is offer a variety. You don't want to watch the same thing every night, as much as you like it; you want to try different things. And what we haven't seen is this, say, race to the bottom of your violent pornography kind of examples. Instead, we've seen great viewing across a whole range—"Black Mirror"—we're filming season five now. And that was a struggling show when it was only in the BBC. And with the distribution of on-demand, you can make these much bigger shows.
You're telling me humans can get addicted by their angels as well as their demons.
Yeah, and again, we try not to think about it in addiction terms, we think about it as, you know: What are you going to do with your time and when you want to relax? You can watch linear TV, you can do video games, you can do YouTube, or you can watch Netflix. And if we're as great as we can be, and we have a variety of moods, then more often, people will choose us.
But you have people in the organization who are looking regularly at the actual impacts of these brilliant algorithms that you've created. Just for reality check, just, "Are we sure that this is the direction we want to go?"
You know, I think we learn. And you have to be humble and sort of say, "Look, there's no perfect tool." The algorithm's one part, the way we commission the content, our relationships with societies. So there's a lot of ways that we have to look at it. So if you get too stuck in "Let's just increase viewing" or "Just increase subscribers," you're unlikely to be able to grow and be the great company you want to be. So think of it as this multiple measures of success.
So, speaking of algorithms that have raised questions: You were on the board of Facebook, and I think Mark Zuckerberg—you've done some mentoring for him. What should we know about Mark Zuckerberg that people don't know?
Well, many of you know him or have seen him. I mean, he's a fantastic human being. Really first-class. And social—these platforms, whether that's YouTube or Facebook, are clearly trying to grow up quickly. And we see that with all new technologies. I mean, yesterday we were talking about printed DNA, and it's like: could be fantastic or could be horrific. And you know, all new technologies—when television was first popular in the 1960s in the US, it was called a "vast wasteland," and that television was going to rot the minds of everybody. It turns out everybody's minds were fine. And there were some adjustments, but think of it as—or, I think of it as—all new technologies have pros and cons. And in social, we're just figuring that out.
How much of a priority is it for the board of Facebook to really address some of the issues? Or is the belief that, actually, the company has been completely unfairly criticized?
Oh, it's not completely unfairly. And Mark's leading the charge on fixing Facebook. And he's very passionate about that.
Reed, I want to look at another passion of yours. I mean, you've done incredibly well with Netflix, you're a billionaire, and you spend a lot of time and indeed, money, on education.
Why is this a passion, and what are you doing about it?
Sure. Right out of college, I was a high school math teacher. So when I later went into business and became a philanthropist, I think I gravitated towards education and trying to make a difference there. And the main thing I noticed is, you know, educators want to work with other great educators and to create many unique environments for kids. And we need a lot more variety in the system than we have, and a lot more educator-centric organizations. And so the tricky thing is, right now in the US, most schools are run by a local school board. And it has to meet all needs in the community, and, in fact, what we need is a lot more variety. So in the US there's a form of public school called charter public schools, that are run by nonprofits. And that's the big emphasis for me, is if you can have schools run by nonprofits, they are more mission-focused, they support the educators well. I'm on the board of KIPP charter schools, which is one of the larger networks. And, you know, it's 30,000 kids a year getting very stimulating education.
Paint me a picture of what a school should look like.
It depends on the kid. Think about it as: with multiple kids, there's all different needs that need to be met, so there's not any one model. And you want to be able to choose, depending on your kid and what you think they need. But they should be very educator-centric and curious and stimulating and all of those things. And this whole idea of 30 kids in fifth grade, all learning the same thing at the same time, you know, is clearly an industrial throwback. But changing that, given the current government structure, is super hard. But what these innovative, nonprofit schools are doing is pushing the bounds, letting kids try new things. And so think of it as the governance reform, that is, the nonprofit, to allow the educational changes.
And sometimes the criticism is put that charter schools, intentionally or unintentionally, suck resources away from the public school system. Should we be concerned about that?
Well, they are public schools. I mean, there's these multiple types of public schools. And if you look at charters as a whole, they serve low-income kids. Because if high-income kids get in trouble, the parents will send them to a private school or they move neighborhoods. And low-income families generally don't have those choices. Like KIPP—it's 80 percent low-income kids, free and reduced lunch. And the college admissions for KIPP is fantastic.
Reed, you signed the Giving Pledge a few years ago, you're committed to giving away more than half of your fortune during your lifetime. Can I cheekily ask how much you've invested in education in the last few years?
It's a couple hundred million, I don't know exactly how many hundreds, but we're continuing to invest and—thank you all—
You know, honestly, for a little while I tried to do politics full-time, working for John Doerr. And while I loved working for John, I just didn't thrive on politics. I love business, I love competing. I love going up against Disney and HBO.
That's what gets me going. And now I do that to really increase Netflix's value, which allows me to write more checks to schools. And so for now, it's the perfect life.
Reed, you're a remarkable person, you've changed all of our lives and the lives of many kids.
Thank you so much for coming to TED.