A Netflix boss isn’t sorry about Chappelle—but he is sorry about how he handled the fallout

Controversy’s favourite child.
Controversy’s favourite child.
Image: Reuters/Yuri Gripas
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Netflix’s top boss admits he didn’t handle the backlash over Dave Chappelle’s The Closer mindfully enough.

The stand-up performance, which began streaming on the platform on Oct. 5, drew ire both outside and inside Netflix’s offices for featuring a string of jokes that some deemed transphobic.

Netflix’s co-CEOs Ted Sarandos and Reed Hastings have since fought tooth and nail to defend the comedian and protect his “artistic freedom,” citing his immense popularity. Three junior employees who stormed a leadership meeting to protest were suspended.

Yesterday (Oct. 19), Sarandos said he “screwed up” the way he communicated with employees in the aftermath of the controversial comedy special, in an interview with Variety magazine. He walked back his statement claiming “content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real world harm,” saying it was an oversimplification, and lacking in humanity. “To be clear, storytelling has an impact in the real world…(which) can be hugely positive, and it can be quite negative,” he added.

Netflix is the world’s largest streaming network and has over 209 million subscribers worldwide.

Why Netflix is changing its tune

“What I should have led with in those emails was humanity,” Sarandos said in the Variety interview. “I should have recognized the fact that a group of our employees was really hurting.”

Today (Oct. 20), a walkout of trans employees and allies from Netflix continued as planned. “We appreciate the willingness to have transformative dialogue. We still look forward to the rally tomorrow, though,” producer and activist Ashlee Marie Preston, who is organizing the walkout, wrote on Instagram yesterday (Oct. 19), following the Sarandos interview.

Many well-known faces from major Netflix shows—The Good Place and Queer Eye, to name just two—filmed a video in support of the protest, in which only around 100 people waved placards in Hollywood. It is not clear how many were Netflix employees.

For all that, Netflix has made it clear that the Chappelle special is going nowhere.

“We have articulated to our employees that there are going to be things you don’t like,” Sarandos said. “There are going to be things that you might feel are harmful. But we are trying to entertain a world with varying tastes and varying sensibilities and various beliefs, and I think this special was consistent with that.”

Earlier today, Netflix issued a new statement: “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 recognize we have much more work to do both within Netflix and in our content.”

Netflix and Dave Chappelle’s relationship

Employees shouldn’t be surprised with Netflix’s stance. It’s not like Chappelle’s previous special Sticks & Stones shied away from jokes about trans people, and many others. Plus, there’s a lot of money riding on him. Chappelle received $500,000 more for The Closer than he did for Sticks & Stones.

Overall, Netflix spent more—more than $24 million—on this one special than it did on all nine episodes of its hit Korean dystopian thriller Squid Game, which is its biggest TV show ever. More than 142 million member households watched Squid Game within four weeks of its release.

Sarandos also pointed out the Netflix-verse has created ample content for the LGBTQ community with shows like Sex Education and Orange Is The New Black, and would continue to do so. The company is now producing local TV and film in approximately 45 countries, it wrote in an Oct. 19 letter to shareholders, to cater to a wide and diverse audience.

This piece has been updated.