Photo-Illustration: Vulture. Photo: Craig Barritt/Getty Images
Most of the headlines out of last week’s quarterly earnings report from Netflix focused on Reed Hastings’s decision to step down from a day-to-day management role as well as the news that Greg Peters would be joining Ted Sarandos as co-CEO. But, in some ways, the even bigger story was the announcement that TV chief Bela Bajaria had been promoted into Sarandos’s old job of chief content officer, giving her oversight of all things TV and film. Within the space of 30 months, Bajaria has gone from managing Netflix’s non-English language TV shows to being the top content exec at the company. That’s the very definition of meteoric rise.
And yet, while Bajaria’s ascent has been rapid, she is actually the most seasoned exec Netflix has ever had running its content business. Sarandos, the company’s original creative boss, might be seen now as a supreme showman, and he could probably teach a master class in building a movie and TV business from the ground up. But when House of Cards arrived in members’ queues ten years ago next week, it was not the product of Sarandos’s amazing development acumen or years of experience green-lighting projects (he didn’t have any). Instead, he and his team simply agreed to write a bigger check than anyone else in Hollywood and then learned the TV business as they went along. And while Cindy Holland, Bajaria’s immediate predecessor as TV chief, wasn’t quite as much of a content novice as Sarandos, her pre-Netflix development experience was mostly limited to the indie film business. Her biggest skill was picking the right talent to partner with and then giving them the freedom to do their thing.
By contrast, Bajaria knows TV. I met her in the late 1990s, when CBS insiders were raving about the young exec who was just beginning to make a name for herself in the made-for-TV-movies division. Even as the networks were starting to abandon the form, Bajaria kept finding ways to keep TV movies and miniseries relevant. CBS maintained a movie-of-the-week franchise longer than any other network, but eventually even the Eye couldn’t figure out how to make money on movies, so, in 2006, Bajaria moved over to CBS’s in-house studio, where she helped the network take advantage of basic cable’s increasing hunger for original dramas. Five years later, she jumped to NBCUniversal and helped bulk up its studio business to meet the needs of the emerging streaming ecosystem, overseeing the launch of shows such as Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Mindy Project, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Master of None. Sarandos, impressed with the work Bajaria had done, brought her into the Netflix fold in 2016.
One top talent agent who knows her well says Bajaria’s willingness to work outside her comfort zone — like when she took control of Netflix’s non-English-language productions — will serve her well. “She is unafraid to try new things like doing non-scripted and international or, hell, working at Netflix versus NBC in the first place,” he says. “So overseeing movies will be easy by comparison.” Another agency insider praised her schmoozing skills, saying she has the same easy rapport with talent and execs as Sarandos. “When she is with people, they all love her,” this source told me. “She’s honest, she’s straightforward, she cuts to the chase. She knows how to do the exec role.”
Still, the fact that Bajaria is so well versed in the daily ins and outs of making television doesn’t mean she will necessarily do a better job running Netflix content than Sarandos or Holland did — nor is it to suggest that somehow their inexperience was a stumbling block for the streamer. It clearly did well under both execs. But as Netflix enters its second decade green-lighting original content, it makes all the sense in the world that someone with a résumé as deep as Bajaria’s now sits at the top of the production pyramid.
As the company has been making clear since 2018, Netflix wants to be all things (and all channels) to all people: Bravo for lovers of reality TV, CBS for folks who love cop shows, HBO for people who want prestige-y Emmy bait. Bajaria has never run a bespoke network (or any network) but has instead almost always been in the wholesale business, finding ways to supply the best shows and movies to the right networks. And that’s what her mission is at Netflix: find ways to satisfy the extraordinarily varied tastes of the streamers’ hundreds of millions of viewers. That philosophy was on full display earlier this month in The New Yorker’s deep-dive profile of Bajaria, specifically when she was asked to name some of her favorite programs. “I mean, I’m a fan of TV. I work in TV. I watch everybody’s things,” she told the magazine. “People have very different tastes, and I have no disdain for whatever those things are … I just want to super-serve the audience.”
Not surprisingly, that New Yorker article included comments from a few production types who mourned the end of the Holland era at Netflix. That’s understandable because Netflix, like so many companies, probably was a lot more fun to work for and with when it was smaller and still testing the limits of how big this whole streaming business could be. Also it spent crazy amounts of money on anything that sounded even remotely interesting, which, well, that’s going to win you a lot of fans among producers and agents. But while Netflix is still going to keep writing some big checks, the days of unchecked and speculative spending are very much over. Plus, while Netflix insists it still wants to be home to some HBO-like Emmy-bait titles, it also will be demanding titles be cost efficient (i.e., modestly budgeted) and in line with the level of audience they attract.
These new realities, though, may be what make Bajaria well suited for the next Netflix decade. She came up in a TV ecosystem driven by a constant need for ratings hits and commercial success, where titles regularly disappeared after just a few weeks if they didn’t immediately catch on with audiences. And while Netflix can afford to be a little more patient than the Big Four networks used to be, the lessons she learned at CBS and NBCUniversal will no doubt inform many of the decisions she makes as chief content officer: The binge factory now needs to become a hit factory, and it’s on Bajaria to get it done.
Even though Bajaria clearly has the skill set for her new position, being well qualified doesn’t always guarantee success in Hollywood. Netflix still has plenty of money to spend and an unmatched platform able to turn a show into a global phenomenon within the space of a few weeks (see Wednesday). But it also has massive challenges ahead from increased internal pressure to make production budgets line up with audience size to the relentless competition for top showrunners and talent from other streamers. And while a stronger-than-expected fourth quarter has paused the “Netflix on the ropes” narrative that shaped coverage of the streamer for much of last year, the platform’s honeymoon phase is long over. “Bela is now in the” Sarandos “job at a time when it’s going to be a lot harder to avoid scrutiny,” the agency insider says.
While this source generally has good things to say about Bajaria and notes she “has had several wins she can point to” since replacing Holland, he says the turbulence Netflix is sailing through right now makes it more difficult to predict how she will fare. “I would be optimistic Bela could do this job well in calm seas,” he says. But “she’s the head of the team during the hangover period, which makes it a little tougher” than it was when Sarandos had control over content.
Another top talent agent is a bit less fretful, arguing that Bajaria is “a terrific exec” well suited for the new gig. Still, he thinks the departure last year of two key creative execs — original-series VP Matt Thunnel and overall-deals guru Brian Wright, both of whom helped develop Stranger Things — has been a big loss to the streamer. And this agent says he’s been hearing buzz that Netflix plans to let many of its existing overall deals expire in coming months, which could make finding new hits tougher. “Without the overall deals, how does she build a big slate?,” this source wonders.
Indeed, Sarandos has made it clear he wants Netflix to deliver a show as big as Wednesday or Squid Game every month rather than just a few times a year. That’s a huge bar to clear, particularly with Disney, Amazon, HBO, and Apple chasing so many of the same writers and producers. The top agent, however, thinks Bajaria’s populist instincts will serve her well here. “She needs to keep programming things people watch versus snobby shit people don’t,” he says. That’s not a motto Netflix is likely to include in its awards-season advertising — but it’s probably decent advice for a streamer now far more concerned with profits than plaudits.