Netflix’s algorithm is force feeding international entertainment into western TV diets

Winning the game.
Winning the game.
Image: Netflix/Youngkyu Park
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In 2014, Netflix gambled its audiences would watch content produced in countries around the globe, in languages other than their own. That bet is now paying off handsomely with Squid Game, the South Korean dystopian drama that has captured the imagination of viewers internationally.

Squid Game will definitely be our biggest non-English language show in the world, for sure,” said Netflix co-CEO and chief content officer Ted Sarandos during an interview at the Code Conference last week. “[There’s] a very good chance it’s going to be our biggest show ever.”

The Squid Game phenomenon underscores a fundamental change taking place in the viewing habits of western audiences, largely fueled by the broad, location-agnostic Netflix catalog.

The Squid Game phenomenon underscores a fundamental change taking place in the viewing habits of western audiences, largely fueled by the broad, location-agnostic Netflix catalog. Netflix’s early mix of original and licensed TV and film, viewable anywhere, on any device, mobile or stationary, was the company’s Hollywood-disrupting secret sauce that gave it a head start in the war for streaming supremacy. And a big part of Netflix’s early edge was its decision to make what was once art-house foreign cinema and TV fare into mainstream, binge-watchable content.

Netflix’s algorithm shapes what viewers see

Netflix is fairly clear about how its algorithms, user search patterns, and knowledge of viewer habits work to help its subscribers find TV series and films they might like. What’s less clear to some users is why the service so often injects foreign-language suggestions into their content curation streams. The appearance of foreign-language content as an additional viewing option has been, for some, so confounding that there are entire Reddit threads and Quora discussions devoted to preventing the service from offering up its non-English film and TV titles. 

However, this force-feeding of international series and cinema is neither malicious nor some kumbaya-like move to unite the world. Rather, it’s almost certainly tied to Netflix’s massive investment in foreign content.

“Hollywood has a number of amazing storytellers. But that is an incredible disconnect [between the US and the rest of the world], and in that disconnect lies an opportunity. And it’s the opportunity that great stories should be able to come from anywhere,” said Greg Peters, Netflix’s chief product officer, and now also chief operating officer, during a presentation at the annual Web Summit in Lisbon in 2018.

“We decided to take a bet. We commissioned our first international original series in 2014…then, in November 2016, something unexpected and really interesting happened. We launched a dystopian thriller from Brazil called 3%. This show was massive in Brazil. But much more interestingly, it was also a big hit internationally. More than 50% of the viewing hours of that show came from our members and countries as different as Australia, as France, Italy, [South]Korea, Turkey, and on and on… Encouraged, we continued to invest [in] producing shows all over the world.”

Netflix huge investment in content includes international shows

In a letter to shareholders earlier this year, the company revealed that it planned to spend roughly $17 billion on content worldwide in 2021. And while there’s no per-series/per-film breakdown of the spending, a sizable portion of the budget is likely targeted toward the company’s ever-expanding foreign productions in non-English speaking territories. The success of this approach has already been borne out with the success of Lupin (France) and Money Heist (Spain) , which are among Netflix’s top 10 most watched series this year (before the release of Squid Game),

Now, as the runaway popularity of Squid Game—which is spawning everything from custom, unofficial merch, Snapchat lenses, and even Halloween costumes inspired by the series —dominates US pop culture, inserting foreign language series and film titles into the suggestion streams of English-speaking users is probably here to stay.

When the French language series Lupin debuted in January, it was “at the time was our largest non-English launch and the first non-English show to hit number one in the US,” Sarandos said. “Squid Game is blowing past all of them… We did not see that coming in terms of global popularity.”