Netflix's VP of original content explains female-centric programming

Ms Cindy Holland, Netflix's vice-president of original content.
Ms Cindy Holland, Netflix's vice-president of original content.PHOTO: NETFLIX

Netflix's Cindy Holland says she is doing her job best if she is not remembered at all


Unlike traditional television networks driven by the advertising dollar, American streaming giant Netflix has always been known for backing edgy, original content, never mind how niche the audience appeal.

Controversial Netflix shows such as teen drama series 13 Reasons Why, which explores a teen suicide, and comedy drama Orange Is The New Black, about life in a women's prison, would probably have never been greenlit by a traditional television network.

But Netflix has been making the news in recent months for its spate of programme cancellations, for shows such as hip-hop drama The Get Down, comedy series Girlboss and sci-fi drama Sense8. Previously, cancellations were unheard of at the streaming-service company.

Ask Ms Cindy Holland, Netflix's vice-president of original content, about this, and she is frank about how the company is ultimately "a business".

She tells The Straits Times in a telephone interview: "The only reason our cancellations are getting noticed at all is because we haven't had the habit of cancelling, compared to traditional networks in the United States.

"Obviously, cancellations are very difficult decisions. We have invested money, time and energy into a show and we're definitely going to leave some size of unhappy fan base behind.

"But at the end of the day, we're running a business and we cannot justify continuing all shows."

Despite the cancellations, Netflix does not appear to be slowing down its original content output in any way. It has reportedly budgeted US$6 billion (S$8.2 billion) this year alone on producing original content, in every category from scripted drama to documentaries.

Its content is pulling in the crowds. Last month, Netflix's subscriber base crossed the 100-million mark worldwide.

Ms Holland remains optimistic. "I like to think of the cancellations as 'a glass half-full' situation," she says.

"Sense8 got cancelled, but it did have 23 episodes of some very ambitious storytelling which may never have been done elsewhere."

1 Netflix's slate of programming is extremely diverse. What are audiences looking for?

Audiences all around the world are hungry for programming they haven't seen before and characters that aren't the normal ones they would see on traditional television. They're looking for a wider community that they can relate to and we're going to keep bringing that kind of programming front and centre.

2 Netflix recently launched the We Rule campaign, which celebrates strong female characters on television. Why is that important to Netflix?

Half the world's population is female and about half of our members are women, so from the very beginning of original programming, we felt it was important to give a voice to all types of women, all around the world, and to have that reflected in our programming as well.

And we found that by providing a slate of programming that's by and for women, you're giving audiences the opportunity to find more characters they can identify with and relate to.

3 Does Netflix deliberately set aside funding for female-centric programming then?

You may not start out with a specific intention of having a lot of programming for women, about women and by women, but you start with just a few and what tends to happen is that it just grows and grows organically.

For us, we just think it's natural to do shows about women because they make up half of the world's population.

4 Some female-centric Netflix shows, such as Jessica Jones and Glow, have a largely female crew working behind the scenes as well. Were those hiring choices deliberate?

We have certainly developed a reputation that interesting female creators want to come work here, and what tends to happen is that you have a virtual cycle, where a lot of great actresses want to come work on those shows and the best female writers want to be a part of them too.

I don't have the statistics for you, but it's been observed that female directors tend to hire female crew members.

5 Obviously, you invest in a show because you see its potential. But was there any show that surprised you with its success?

Orange Is The New Black is a series that we love and believed would do well, but I'd be lying if I said we predicted it would become the global sensation that it is. So that really surprised us.

6 There are several instances when Netflix chose to work with people that it has collaborated with before. Is that something Netflix likes to do?

I guess once we've established a working relationship with someone, there's less friction involved.

So, we've had multiple shows with Jenji Kohan (producer of Orange Is The New Black and Glow), David Fincher (producer of House Of Cards and Mindhunter) and Jose Padilha (producer of Narcos and O Mecanismo).

But we are always open to working with new people - what we're looking for is a great story and a passion for great storytelling.

7 Netflix's international original shows also do well, such as Netflix Japan's Midnight Diner and Samurai Gourmet. How do you pick the regions in which you wish to invest in content?

We're looking for great storytellers and what is important is that we have them produce those stories in their markets before we export them all over the world.

In Spain, we produced Cable Girls with a Spanish cast and crew and we exported that to the rest of the world. And we've found that a large percentage of the people watching that show are those outside of Spain and Spanish-speaking countries. Hopefully, in time, we'll have local stories from every region in the world.

8 How would you like to be remembered?

I'm doing my job best if I'm not remembered at all.

I'm here to try to provide great entertainment around the world. We're not here for ourselves. We're here for the programming.

•Follow Yip Wai Yee on Twitter @STyipwaiyee

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 21, 2017, with the headline 'Here to provide great shows'. Print Edition | Subscribe