Netflix Inc. Co-Chief Executive Ted Sarandos said he "screwed up" in his efforts to communicate with employees who were upset over "The Closer," a recent comedy special by Dave Chappelle in which he made remarks that some viewed as offensive to the transgender community.
In emails to Netflix staff after the special’s debut earlier this month, Sarandos defended "The Closer," citing its popularity on the platform and the company’s commitment to creative freedom. He also said the company believed "content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm."
In "The Closer," which was released earlier this month and is currently among the most-watched programs on the service in the U.S., Chappelle said "gender is a fact" and said he identified as a "TERF," an acronym that stands for "trans-exclusionary radical feminist." He also compared the transgender community to people who wear blackface.
"What I should have led with in those emails was humanity," Sarandos said in an interview Tuesday evening. "I should have recognized the fact that a group of our employees was really hurting."
Sarandos said his remarks on content not causing real-world harm was also an oversimplification and lacking in humanity.
"To be clear, storytelling has an impact in the real world…sometimes quite negative," he said.
A Netflix transgender-employee group is encouraging all employees to take Wednesday off as a form of protest against Netflix for its decision to continue to work with Chappelle and its reaction to their concerns.
Sarandos, who is also Netflix’s chief content officer, said he isn’t second-guessing the decision to carry "The Closer," nor are there plans to remove it from the streaming giant’s platform.
"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," he added.
Standup comedy is "designed to stir up emotions" Sarandos said. And while Netflix prides itself on having an inclusive staff and programming featuring a range of diverse voices, "sometimes inclusion and artistic expression bump into each other," he said.
"The Closer" is currently among the top 10 most popular Netflix shows in the U.S., and it was as high as No. 3 earlier this week. Chappelle has made several specials for Netflix, and all have been among its most popular offerings.
Criticism of the "The Closer" put Netflix on the defensive just as it was riding high from the success of "Squid Game," a South Korean dystopian drama that made its debut last month and quickly became a global phenomenon.
In the interview, Sarandos said Netflix has spent an enormous amount of money creating content for and by the LGBTQ community and would continue to do so.
"I’m firmly committed to continue to support artistic freedom for the creators who work with Netflix and increase representation behind the screen and on camera," he said, noting these goals may at times be in conflict with each other.
"We have to figure out how to navigate those challenges," Sarandos said.