Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos Says ‘I Screwed Up’ but Doubles Down on Dave Chappelle Defense

Dave Chappelle's latest Netflix comedy special has been widely criticized for jokes about the transgender community.
Ted Sarandos
Ted Sarandos

Netflix has been a lightning rod for controversy in the weeks since Dave Chappelle’s latest comedy special premiered on the platform, but Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos is standing by the project, which has been widely criticized for Chappelle’s jokes about the transgender community.

Sarandos told The Hollywood Reporter in an interview on Tuesday evening that though Chappelle’s special was in line with Netflix’s stance on “artistic expression,” he believed that he had poorly responded to the controversy in internal communications with Netflix staff. The interview occurred after several weeks of controversy surrounding the Chappelle special, which has been criticized by organizations such as GLAAD and The National Black Justice Coalition, as well as Netflix’s own employees, including Jaclyn Moore, an executive producer on Netflix’s popular “Dear White People.”

As the controversy grew, Sarandos reached out to Netflix staff via two internal memos; the CEO claimed that “content doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm” in one of the memos, which ignited further criticism. The Chappelle controversy and Sarandos’ memos inspired trans Netflix staffers and trans allies to plan a walkout in protest of the special. Sarandos told The Hollywood Reporter that he regretted his attempt to communicate with staff.

“I can tell you I screwed up those communications in two ways,” Sarandos told The Hollywood Reporter. “One of them was, I should have first and foremost acknowledged in those emails that a group of our employees were in pain, and they were really feeling hurt from a business decision that we made. And I, instead of acknowledging that first, I went right into some rationales. And so first of all, I’d say those emails lacked humanity, in which I like to and I do generally communicate with our teams.”

As for the second part, Sarandos said that the leaked email was “out of context” and was part of an ongoing effort by Netflix to discuss the real-world impacts of its film and television programming. Sarandos’ original comment about the real-world impact of Netflix content was particularly controversial and the CEO walked back that belief in new interview: “I 100 percent believe that content on screen can have impact in the real world, positive and negative,” Sarandos said.

“When we think about this challenge we have to entertain the world, part of that challenge means that you’ve got audiences with various taste, various sensibilities, various beliefs,” Sarandos told The Hollywood Reporter. “You really can’t please everybody or the content would be pretty dull. And we do tell our employees upfront that we are trying to entertain our members, and that some of the content on Netflix you’re not going to like, and so this kind of commitment to artistic expression and free artistic expression is sometimes in conflict with people feeling protected and safe. I do think that that’s something that we struggle with all the time when these two values bump up against each other.”

Sarandos was asked about whether Netflix would be willing to adopt any requests that the trans employee resource group is expected to bring up on Wednesday, but did not offer specifics about how Netflix may change its operations in response to the Chappelle controversy.

The Hollywood Reporter’s full interview with Sarandos can be read here.

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