Netflix exec tells Jerusalem gathering: Foreign shows are ‘essential’

Streaming giant’s VP of original content chats with Keshet CEO at event for TV folk hoping to produce the next ‘Fauda’ or ‘Shtisel’

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

At the first session of INTV, the Innovative TV Conference in Jerusalem on March 11, 2019, with Netflix's Cindy Holland and Keshet's Avi Nir (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
At the first session of INTV, the Innovative TV Conference in Jerusalem on March 11, 2019, with Netflix's Cindy Holland and Keshet's Avi Nir (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

What’s the holy grail for Israeli television executives and writers? According to series creators, it’s getting their show on Netflix, the US-based on-demand provider that began by mailing movies to people’s homes and has ended up changing the way people watch TV.

Though Israeli shows on Netflix weren’t even mentioned by Avi Nir, CEO of Israel’s Keshet Media Group during his hour-long conversation with Cindy Holland, vice president of original content at Netflix, at the first session of the annual Innovative TV Conference held at Jerusalem’s YMCA, the question was implicit throughout.

The conference was the largest gathering ever of INTV, held for the sixth time in Jerusalem in partnership with media company Deadline Hollywood.

“I’ve never seen so many Hollywood executives outside the Polo Lounge,” said Deadline’s Stacey Farish at the opening session. “Keshet is encouraging so many executives to come to the Holy Land.”

For two days, March 11 and 12, Israeli and Hollywood television executives met for sessions about global programming, financing, writing, trends and storytelling.

Cindy Holland, Netflix’s VP of original content (Courtesy Netflix)

On Monday, Nir launched the conference with a conversation with Holland, a 16-year veteran of Netflix, gently leading her through a brief discussion of Netflix’s beginnings to its current status as “the biggest disrupter in TV,” he said.

Netflix’s early DVD-mailing business helped the company learn viewership habits. At its height, it had 100,000 titles on all kinds of subjects, which led it to realize its original content would have to reflect that range.

“DVDs were a means to an end for us,” said Holland. “The question was how to grow some form of delivery on the internet.”

Viewers generally watch an average of two hours a day, with movies serving as a kind of “palate cleanser” between series, she said. They’re also still largely watching on devices connected to a television, although some emerging markets watch more on mobile devices.

Avi Nir, CEO of Keshet Media (Courtesy INTV)

Netflix currently has 139 million paying viewers, and a presumed total of 300 million viewers, but its possible world of viewers is much larger, and its assumption is that it needs to provide suitable content in order to snag a larger piece of the global pie, said Holland.

“We’re still experimenting,” said Holland. “We have dozens of people with green light and licensing power, and we try to provide an environment that is welcoming to creators.”

Netflix’s current selection of shows is highly curated, aiming to provide for audiences with varying tastes.

“Our brand is as broad as the tastes of our members,” said Holland. “Our responsibility is to entertain.”

Netflix’s early original series, “House of Cards” in 2010, followed by “Orange is the New Black,” were gambles that turned out well and made many careers.

Asked by Nir whether there is such a thing as an international show, Holland replied that with 80 percent of Netflix’s acquisitions coming from outside the US, the company is very aware of the need to provide content for other countries, and has great interest in foreign titles.

“We think international acquisitions are essential for the lifeblood of the company,” she said.

“Narcos,” a series about Colombian drug trade in the 1980s, “resonated everywhere. Turns out that drugs and crime travel!”

Titles that do well in home markets are generally more likely to be universally appealing, said Holland.

It was a comment that made many of the Israeli TV executives and writers in the room sit up a little straighter in their seats. Several Israeli shows have made it to Netflix, including “Fauda” and recent arrival “Shtisel.”

Viewers don’t take long to decide what to watch and make their decision in a matter of seconds, said Holland.

Early indications within the company notwithstanding, “any premonition of what will be a hit, you just don’t know,” said Holland.

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