For months after the 2016 election, I wanted nothing more than to escape America. I don’t mean literally — in the cliché liberal way of absconding to Canada — but intellectually, socially, psychically. Donald Trump was all anybody talked about, and I needed sanctuary. I wanted to find places where the American president-elect and his American opponents and their American controversies simply did not exist.
I found such a place in a British reality baking contest. By which I mean I found it on Netflix, which has become the internet’s most invaluable and intoxicating portal to the parts of planet Earth that aren’t America.
On Sunday, Netflix will compete for its first Best Picture Oscar for “Roma,” the Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón’s exploration of his childhood in Mexico City. A win by “Roma” would be a fitting testament to Netflix’s ambitions. Virtually alone among tech and media companies, Netflix intends to ride a new kind of open-border digital cosmopolitanism to the bank.
For me, it was nice British people politely baking against one another that offered one of the first hints of Netflix’s unusual strategy. “The Great British Baking Show,” for those not in the cult, is an amateur baking contest, and it is one of the least American things you will ever see on TV. It depicts a utopia: a multicultural land of friendly blokes and mums with old-timey jobs — Imelda is a “countryside recreation officer” — blessed with enough welfare-state-enabled free time to attain expertise in British confectionary. To an American, the show suggests a time and place where our own worries have no meaning. And that, more than baking, is what “The Great British Baking Show” is really about.
The show was first produced and aired on British broadcast television (as “The Great British Bake-Off”) and imported to the United States by PBS, which then licensed it to Netflix. But Netflix, which has 139 million paying members around the world, has lately become something more than a licenser of other countries’ escapist television.
In 2016, the company expanded to 190 countries, and last year, for the first time, a majority of its subscribers and most of its revenue came from outside the United States. To serve this audience, Netflix now commissions and licenses hundreds of shows meant to echo life in every one of its markets and, in some cases, to blend languages and sensibilities across its markets (see Marie Kondo’s half-in-Japanese tidying-up blockbuster).
In the process, Netflix has discovered something startling: Despite a supposed surge in nationalism across the globe, many people like to watch movies and TV shows from other countries. “What we’re learning is that people have very diverse and eclectic tastes, and if you provide them with the world’s stories, they will be really adventurous, and they will find something unexpected,” Cindy Holland, Netflix’s vice president for original content, told me.
The strategy may sound familiar; Hollywood and Silicon Valley have long pursued expansion internationally. But Netflix’s strategy is fundamentally different. Instead of trying to sell American ideas to a foreign audience, it’s aiming to sell international ideas to a global audience. A list of Netflix’s most watched and most culturally significant recent productions looks like a Model United Nations: Besides Ms. Kondo’s show, there’s the comedian Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette” from Australia; from Britain, “Sex Education” and “You”; “Elite” from Spain; “The Protector” from Turkey; and “Baby” from Italy.
I’ll admit there’s something credulous and naïve embedded in my narrative so far. Let me get this straight, you’re thinking: A tech company wants to bring the world closer together? As social networks help foster misinformation and populist fervor across the globe, you’re right to be skeptical. But there is a crucial difference between Netflix and other tech giants: Netflix makes money from subscriptions, not advertising.This simple difference flips all of its incentives. It means that Netflix has a reason to satisfy every new customer, not just the ones in the most prosperous markets. Each new title carries subtitles in 26 languages, and the company is creating high-quality, properly lip-synced audio dubbing in 10 languages. For years, Netflix has roiled the film and TV business in Hollywood with its billions. Now it’s taking its money — the company spent $12 billion on content in 2018 and is projected to spend $15 billion this year — to film and TV producers in France, Spain, Brazil, India, South Korea and the Middle East, among other places.
Because it is spending so much on shows from everywhere, Netflix has an incentive to get the biggest bang for its buck by pushing them widely across its user base. Its algorithms are tuned toward expanding your interests rather than narrowing them. As a result, many of Netflix’s shows are watched widely beyond their local markets. Dystopian thrillers seem to travel particularly well. In 2016, the company added the Brazilian dystopian thriller series “3%,” a bleak look at the near future; about half of its viewers were from outside Brazil. When the German thriller “Dark” dropped in 2017, it hit the company’s Top 10 list in 136 countries, and about 90 percent of the series’ viewers were outside Germany.
“The industry here feels liberated by it,” Dario Madrona, one of the creators of “Elite,” told me. According to Netflix, “Elite” has been seen by 20 million viewers around the world. That level of popularity is huge for a teen drama from Spain; an audience of 20 million would be a decent hit on American broadcast TV. “We’re starting to feel, I think, like how you guys in the U.S. have felt for a long time,” Mr. Madrona said. “You can create a show there, and you can be seen all over the world.”
Netflix’s push abroad has not been without incident. Late last year, the company earned international condemnation for pulling an episode of “Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj” from its service in Saudi Arabia. The comedian had criticized the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, after the C.I.A.’s conclusion that the prince had ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident Saudi journalist.
Netflix argued that it had no choice but to obey the Saudi legal authority, which said the episode violated a statute, if it wanted to continue operating in that country. The company’s executives suggested that bringing the Saudis the rest of Netflix — every other episode of “Patriot Act” or shows that explore issues of gender and sexuality, like “Big Mouth” and “Sex Education” and “Nanette” — was better than having the entire service go dark in that country.
It’s certainly a slippery argument — but I believe it’s a valid one. Netflix does seem to be pushing cultural boundaries and sparking new conversations all over the world. After it plastered Bangkok with billboards advertising “Sex Education” last month, a conservative Thai political party filed a complaint against the company for airing the racy British comedy, which the party called “a great challenge to Thai society.” The young, progressive Thai internet responded in fury, and in the outrage, people started talking about actual problems in Thai society, like the lack of sex education and the high rates of teenage pregnancy.
Consider, too, “Nanette,” in which Ms. Gadsby, who was virtually unknown beyond Australia before Netflix, delivers a groundbreaking stand-up performance about, roughly, art history, homosexuality, women’s rights and the tragic limits of comedy. The show was eye-opening to me, and I live in the progressive wonderland of Northern California; to a young lesbian in India, where people like Ms. Gadsby are not easily visible in media, it might have been a revelation. In fact, “Nanette” was a hit across Southeast Asia and India.
It’s legitimate to ask how long Netflix will be able to keep up this cross-border conversation — whether, as it keeps growing, it will have to make legal or moral compromises with local censors or other would-be cultural arbiters. But I’m optimistic about its chances. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the internet did turn out to bring the world together after all?