in NEW YORK
Ted Sarandos, the man who decides what shows and movies run on Netflix, was on a stage recently interviewing Norman Lear, the creator of some of television’s most controversial and groundbreaking shows, such as “All in the Family” and “Good Times.”
Sarandos asked Lear if he considers himself a “provocateur” in the world of television.
Lear demurred. Then he turned to the audience and pointed to Sarandos.
“Does everyone in the audience know what this guy is up to?” Lear asked. “At one time, it was Milton Berle,” he said, referring to the legendary comedian and actor who became known as “Mr. Television.” “Today, it could be Ted Sarandos.”
Sarandos is the Internet’s Mr. Television, the man who has quietly amassed power in the deeply entrenched television industry and reshaped how consumers view television and movies online from his perch at Netflix, launching hits such as “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black.”
But after a decade as pretty much the biggest player in the world of Internet-streamed television, Netflix is getting new competition — from some of the country’s most powerful companies. Time Warner’s HBO, CBS, Sony, Showtime and Amazon are all aping the Netflix model: Let people skip cable, and give them their favorite shows over the Internet.
With so many alternatives coming online, the question is whether Netflix will continue to be as important for its 36.2 million U.S. customers, many of whom have relied on it as an alternative to cable. Netflix says its recommendation technology, which helps guide viewers to what else they might want to watch on the service, will give it an edge. But for the Silicon Valley company, its future will largely lie in the hands of its Hollywood guy.
Sarandos’s rise symbolizes a new reality in the entertainment world. With the waning influence of cable bundles, and viewers picking and choosing what they want to watch from all over the Internet, the future of television has become a cutthroat race for whoever can produce the best shows. Netflix has spent $3 billion on acquiring content this year, even as subscriber growth in the United States is slowing.
Now with HBO and others treading onto Netflix’s turf, the 50-year-old Sarandos, an affable, TV-obsessed college-dropout-turned-Hollywood-dealmaker, has a target on his back.
“When his first original, ‘House of Cards,’ came out, I joked with Ted, ‘You’re going to think this is easier than it really is by hitting a grand slam home run right away,’ ” said Leslie Moonves, chief executive of CBS, whom Sarandos considers a friend, mentor and, sometimes, a business rival. “But it’s hard. It’s about the negotiating process, how people view the content and many other things.”
Sarandos could be cast in someone’s show as the slacker hero. He was the fourth of five children of working-class parents. Their Phoenix home had the television running at all hours “to deal with the chaos,” he said.
His life revolved around TV. He rushed home from school on Tuesdays to see early afternoon episodes of “Happy Days.” He kept track of time — when to study, when to eat — by the television schedule. He slept just three to four hours to watch Jack Benny and Dick Van Dyke shows slotted for overnight hours.
When Sarandos’s sister and brother-in-law moved to Houston, he processed his grief through “All In the Family.” He wept along with the television patriarch Archie Bunker as Gloria and Meathead left Archie and Edith’s home.
He once watched five back-to-back episodes of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” with his family on a local Sunday broadcast, what he calls his first exposure to binge-watching shows the way fans of “House of Cards” do now.
He enrolled in the local community college and worked at the school newspaper. But he spent more of his time writing about movies and TV than studying and eventually dropped out because of poor grades.
Sarandos was having more fun at his job working at a local video store, bantering with customers about films and offering recommendations. Soon, he took over management of the store and eventually ran the company’s chain of eight locations. He learned about contract negotiations with Hollywood distributors. He widened his network. He drew closer to the orbit of television and film.
“I didn’t realize then that I wanted to get into the business, but I knew I wanted to meet those people, those people in that little box,” Sarandos said.
In 2000, he joined Netflix, which was then reinventing how people rented movies and taking on Blockbuster. From his spot as the chief content officer — the title he holds today — Sarandos began building his reputation as a behind-the-scenes operator in Hollywood, cutting deals for what shows and movies would be distributed through Netflix.
With rosy cheeks and a Sunday-service haircut, Sarandos has a chipper demeanor that has helped him cultivate powerful and older allies.
He has powerful ties — his wife of five years, Nicole Avant, was a bundler for President Obama and served as ambassador to the Bahamas. Sarandos and Avant are friends with other power couples in Hollywood, including Moonves and his wife, Julie Chen. He became friends with studio head Harvey Weinstein of the Weinstein Company and says he tries to model himself after friend Ron Meyer of Universal Pictures, who, he says, “never loses his temper or raises his voice.”
“I’ve discussed the most obscure movies and documentaries with him that when you talk to somebody in our industry or even some of the other heads of studios, they have no idea what I’m talking about, but Ted knows everything from the film’s plot to behind-the-scene production facts,” Weinstein said in an e-mail. “He’s a true cinephile.”
It was remarkable for any outsider — particularly from an unusual company like Netflix — to break into the upper ranks of Hollywood. It also helped that he had a blank checkbook from Netflix’s chief executive, Reed Hastings, to license programs from companies like CBS and then create shows.
Now, Sarandos can’t go to a lunch or cocktail party without getting pitched to pick up a film or television idea. His team in Beverly Hills weeds through dozens of e-mail, phone and mail pitches each day. They bring about three or four ideas to Sarandos each day.
“Was there suspicion at first?” said Moonves, of the possibility that Netflix would somehow threaten CBS’s business. “Sure. But here was a company willing to pay a fair price for our content. And that’s really what CBS is all about, making sure our content is distributed on as many platforms as possible for a fair price.”
Netflix may have created a new mold for how people watch TV, but plenty of other companies are imitating it.
Sarandos has long considered HBO to be Netflix’s biggest competitor. He has said the company needs to become more like HBO, with its premier content, before HBO becomes like Netflix with compelling online technology.
Now, with HBO unveiling an Internet-only service next year, that moment is arriving.
Netflix says it’s ready for the threat of HBO. Netflix has more U.S. subscribers than HBO, but it lags in overall global users, with 50 million subscribers compared with HBO’s 130 million.
HBO, for its part, rejects the idea that it will compete directly with Netflix for online customers. Most consumers, HBO says, will see the online services as complementary.
“Obviously we are a premium offering,” said HBO chief executive Richard Plepler at a recent event in New York. “I think everybody understands while Netflix is a wonderful . . . option to catch up on shows . . . HBO is a very, very unique premium service, and I don’t think there is any confusion about that.”
To stay ahead of the pack, Sarandos has his eye on upending the movie business.
He has argued to studios that the strategy of delaying the television and online releases of films many months after they show in theaters hurts creators. Why not bring the biggest audiences possible to movies, he has suggested to studio heads, with simultaneous releases on Netflix?
In September, Netflix shocked Hollywood when it announced it was producing its first original film, a sequel to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” to be produced by the Weinstein Company and simultaneously released in IMAX theaters. That deal was immediately followed by a four-picture contract with comedian Adam Sandler.
Every major theater chain protested the announcement. Chains that operate IMAX screens said they wouldn’t participate.
“We thought, if we are putting $1 billion into output deals with studios over three to five years, let’s spend that $1 billion into making our own films, not just TV movies, but real movies that you would want to see in theaters,” Sarandos said.
But funding those programs may prove challenging.
Netflix’s fast growth began to slow last quarter. The company said last month it added 980,000 domestic subscribers during the third quarter, compared with 1.3 million additions it had during the same period the previous year. Immediately, the stock dropped 26.4 percent on the news.
Netflix “is likely not as inelastic as we and management had hoped,” BTIG analyst Rich Greenfield wrote in a note. “We do believe that the ability to drive gross adds and pricing power is directly tied to the amount of great content Netflix offers and the timing of new headline original content.”
Sarandos plays down the idea that HBO will knock out Netflix anytime soon.
“It would have been right to dismiss us from the early days with DVDs and even with ‘House of Cards,’ which no one expected to be such a hit right out the gate,” Sarandos said.
He said the company slowly built its relationships, made deals, developed its technology while most weren’t looking.
“We just kept reinvesting and reinvesting and iterating on what we had,” he said.