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Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos told staff that Dave Chappelle’s comedy special The Closer does not cross the streaming service’s “line on hate” in an October 9 memo obtained by Variety. “I recognize, however, that distinguishing between commentary and harm is hard, especially with stand-up comedy which exists to push boundaries,” Sarandos wrote. “Some people find the art of stand-up to be mean-spirited but our members enjoy it, and it’s an important part of our content offering.” Chappelle’s special has been criticized as anti-trans by LGBTQ+ groups and individuals, including trans Netflix software engineer Terra Field, who spoke out against the special on Twitter and has reportedly since been suspended with two other employees for crashing the company’s quarterly business review without an invite. (Netflix said no employees were suspended for tweets about the show.) According to Variety, Sarandos addressed concerns about Chappelle’s special during the business review and sent the memo after the event.
In the message, Sarandos noted that Netflix has a long-standing deal with Chappelle, adding that the comedian’s last special, Sticks & Stones, was also controversial and has garnered more views and awards than any of the streaming service’s other stand-up specials to date. Referencing some of Netflix’s other controversial titles, such as Cuties and 13 Reasons Why, Sarandos said that Netflix strives to support “creative freedom — even though this means there will always be content on Netflix some people believe is harmful.” The co-CEO stated that the company is committed to inclusion and is proud to offer shows like Sex Education and Young Royals. However, he said, “particularly in stand-up comedy, artistic freedom is obviously a very different standard of speech than we allow internally as the goals are different: entertaining people versus maintaining a respectful, productive workplace.”
I wanted to follow up on The Closer – Dave Chappelle’s latest special – as several of you have reached out following QBR asking what to say to your teams. It never feels good when people are hurting, especially our colleagues, so I wanted to give you some additional context. You should also be aware that some talent may join third parties in asking us to remove the show in the coming days, which we are not going to do.
Chappelle is one of the most popular stand-up comedians today, and we have a long standing deal with him. His last special, Sticks & Stones, also controversial, is our most watched, stickiest, and most award winning stand-up special to date. As with our other talent, we work hard to support their creative freedom – even though this means there will always be content on Netflix some people believe is harmful, like Cuties, 365 Days, 13 Reasons Why, or My Unorthodox Life.
Several of you have also asked where we draw the line on hate. We don’t allow titles on Netflix that are designed to incite hate or violence, and we don’t believe The Closer crosses that line. I recognize, however, that distinguishing between commentary and harm is hard, especially with stand-up comedy which exists to push boundaries. Some people find the art of stand-up to be mean-spirited but our members enjoy it, and it’s an important part of our content offering.
In terms of our commitment to inclusion, we’re working hard to ensure more people see their lives reflected on screen and that under-represented communities are not defined by the single story. So we’re proud of titles like Sex Education, Young Royals, Control Z and Disclosure. Externally, particularly in stand-up comedy, artistic freedom is obviously a very different standard of speech than we allow internally as the goals are different: entertaining people versus maintaining a respectful, productive workplace.
Today’s conversation on Entertain the World was timely. These are hard and uncomfortable issues. We all bring different values and perspectives so thank you for being part of the conversation as it’s important we’re clear about our operating principles.
Update October 12: Terra Field tweeted that she has been reinstated at Netflix, and included a screenshot of what appears to be an email documenting her reinstatement. “At the very least, I feel vindicated,” Field wrote.
Update October 13: According to Variety, Ted Sarandos released a memo to all Netflix employees stating that Netflix has “a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm” in response to the scheduled walkout protest. Sarandos stated: “As a leadership team, we do not believe that The Closer is intended to incite hatred or violence against anyone (per our Sensitive Content guidelines).”
Below is Ted Sarandos’ full memo to employees:
We know that a number of you have been left angry, disappointed and hurt by our decision to put Dave Chappelle’s latest special on Netflix. Also, we have many new colleagues who want to better understand the principles that guide our team’s content choices, especially with challenging titles like this.
Our goal is to entertain the world, which means programming for a diversity of tastes. This member-centric view has driven our growth over the last 20 years, despite all the competition, and remains Netflix’s north star today. We also support artistic freedom to help attract the best creators, and push back on government and other censorship requests. Our Entertain the World and Strategy Bets memos, which we’ve debated extensively, are clear about both principles – including the trade offs, i.e. that we’ll always have titles some members and employees dislike or believe are harmful.
With The Closer, we understand that the concern is not about offensive-to-some content but titles which could increase real world harm (such as further marginalizing already marginalized groups, hate, violence etc.) Last year, we heard similar concerns about 365 Days and violence against women. While some employees disagree, we have a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm.
The strongest evidence to support this is that violence on screens has grown hugely over the last thirty years, especially with first party shooter games, and yet violent crime has fallen significantly in many countries. Adults can watch violence, assault and abuse – or enjoy shocking stand-up comedy – without it causing them to harm others. We are working hard to ensure marginalized communities aren’t defined by a single story. So we have Sex Education, Orange is the New Black, Control Z, Hannah Gadsby and Dave Chappelle all on Netflix. Key to this is increasing diversity on the content team itself.
In his special, Chappelle makes harsh jokes about many different groups, which is his style and a reason his fans love his comedy and commentary. Stand-up comedians often expose issues that are uncomfortable because the art by nature is a highly provocative. As a leadership team, we do not believe that The Closer is intended to incite hatred or violence against anyone (per our Sensitive Content guidelines).
We’ve had these operating principles around pleasing our members and artistic expression for many years, and the team’s decision to put The Closer on our service was consistent with them. The variety and quality of our content is what members value most. Our hope is that you can be hugely inspired by entertaining the world, while also living with titles you strongly believe have no place on Netflix. This will not be the last title that causes some of you to wonder if you can still love Netflix. I sincerely hope that you can.
In response, Netflix employee Terra Field, who has now been reinstated, reiterated her point that “You can’t buy carbon offsets for bigotry. There is no cap and trade for hatred.”
Netflix’s Sarandos Sticks By Chappelle in New Memo to Staff