Netflix's plan to get everyone watching foreign-language content

Yes, even English-speaking Americans.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
3 min read

German sci-fi series "Dark" is popular across the globe.


Netflix might be a firmly established giant among streaming services, but it still has tricks up its sleeve. Among them: more shows in languages other than English.

On Wednesday, Chief Product Officer Greg Peters said Netflix wants to produce shows in countries around the world and make them available to a global audience. He made the remarks at the Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal, where Netflix announced two new original non-English-language shows. 

Alma, from Spain, is a supernatural drama about a girl who wakes up with no memory of an accident that kills all her classmates. The second is called Ragnarok, which Peters described as a coming-of-age drama rooted in Norse mythology but set in modern-day Norway. Both shows are due to go into production next year for a 2020 launch.

The shows are part of the company's bid to fund high-quality foreign-language content and promote it to audiences around the world. They'll also help Netflix thrive if Europe enacts a new law stipulating that 30 percent of content on streaming services must be created in European countries, though Peters didn't mention this in his remarks.

"It doesn't matter where you live or what languages you speak, this is about great storytelling," he said. "Netflix members around the world want authentic storytelling, they want a perspective from a passionate creator that's grounded in the local culture."

Netflix first commissioned content from outside the US in 2014. A Brazilian show called 3 percent debuted at the end of 2016, and proved to be incredibly popular outside of Brazil, with about half of viewers in other countries. The popularity of the show helped the company see the global potential of non-English language content. 

Netflix saw a similar trend with Dark, a German show, which had 90 percent of its viewers outside of the country and ranked in the Top 10 in multiple countries.

"All of this activity demonstrates that great stories can come from anywhere and they can travel everywhere," said Peters.

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Another crucial element is investment in improving the availability of shows in different languages through subtitles and dubbing.  House of Cards, Netflix's first original show, was subtitled in nine languages when it debuted six years ago. Now Netflix routinely dubs content in 10 languages, and as many as 26 if the show is for children.

 "All this beautiful work, it doesn't matter if people can't understand what they're watching," Peters said.

The appetite for shows made outside of Hollywood in languages other than English is high all around the world, except one place. A survey conducted by Netflix showed a high percentage of US viewers don't want to watch content in languages other than English.

"It's a super depressing survey result," Peters said. "So we ignored that survey." 

The company experimented by showing US viewers foreign-language content. It found that if the quality of the content was high, viewers were more than happy to watch it. Netflix also discovered they were much more likely to finish a show if it had been dubbed, rather than subtitled.

Dubbing and subtitling are art forms of their own, Peters said, and Netflix is working hard to improve the quality of both. The company had the cast of Dark dub the show in English, an effort to add to the authenticity.

"When we do it well, all of that complexity fades into the background," he said. "All you're left with is an incredible story told well and presented beautifully ... and there are so many untold stories that the world is just waiting to see."

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