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What Cindy Holland’s Exit and Bela Bajaria’s Rise Mean for Netflix

Bela Bajaria (Courtesy of Peter Yang for Variety)

The departure of longtime Netflix executive Cindy Holland caught the industry off guard Tuesday evening, particularly since the well-liked executive had been a driving force of the streaming service’s first-wave originals strategy, bringing hits like “Orange Is the New Black” and “Stranger Things” to viewers. Her roots at the company stretched back to 2002 as now co-CEO Ted Sarandos’ first hire in Los Angeles, when the pair shared a little office in Raleigh Studios and Netflix was still a tech outsider in Hollywood.

But Sarandos’ decision to elevate local-language originals VP Bela Bajaria to head of global TV left “no role” for Holland at the streaming platform, according to a person familiar with the situation. Another well-liked exec who had brought to the service “You” and the “Queer Eye” reboot, Bajaria has been a rising star in the four years she has been with Netflix, spending the last year expanding the company’s footprint outside of the U.S.

Even as the move signals Netflix’s focus on global growth, it also marks the end of an era. Holland helped to shape the streaming giant in its current form today, diving years ago into the creation of original programming in a bid to be less reliant on the Disneys and WarnerMedias for a steady stream of content.

“When we started original series, we sort of looked at ourselves as the alternative to the traditional studio overall deal model,” Holland told Variety in the summer of 2019. But she also had the foresight a decade ago to see that the town’s legacy studios would eventually branch out into streaming themselves, and sought to get ahead of that.

Bajaria explained just two months ago that Netflix tends to swiftly shuffle its own organizational deck when it sees possible efficiencies. Her own trajectory, shifting from unscripted to international to head of all TV in the span of four years, is a record of that.

Positioning Bajaria as the leader of Netflix’s TV operations both domestically and abroad makes sense: She is a veteran of the traditional television industry, having spent a decade and a half at major broadcast network CBS, ultimately overseeing movies and miniseries, and leading cable programming for CBS’ studio. And though her tenure as Universal TV studio president was fairly brief, she spent her years at the NBCUniversal-owned studio bringing to the world shows like “Chicago Fire” and Mindy Kaling’s “The Mindy Project,” the first major show from a South Asian female creator and exec producer.

But the London-born South Asian American is also a citizen of the world, and her time as head of local-language originals has been a rigorous year of beefing up Netflix’s global executive team and the platform’s position in the streaming market with slick titles like South African spy thriller “Queen Sono.”

Anyone who has been paying attention to Netflix’s quarterly earnings reports for the last few years should be unsurprised that the Silicon Valley company that successfully burrowed into Hollywood is now focused on growth outside of America. The U.S. direct-to-consumer entertainment arena is a market constantly threatening to reach saturation, beset by no small number of new streamers that have descended on American viewers in the last year, asking for subscriber dollars, though they are unlikely to topple Netflix’s 193 million paying households anytime in the near term.

And with twice as many subscribers in regions outside of North America, non-U.S. viewers once lured in by shows like “Orange” — half of the show’s viewers were outside of the U.S., Holland previously told Variety — are plausibly likelier to embrace a streamer that speaks their language, sometimes literally.

That Hollywood’s top TV execs play musical chairs every few years is no real surprise. But as streaming services have come to dominate the industry conversation, it has been players from legacy studio institutions — and not move-fast-and-break-things-style tech behemoths — that have come to take the helm at Silicon Valley’s Hollywood outposts.

Bajaria now leads TV at the biggest streamer in the country. Her former NBCUniversal colleague, Jennifer Salke, oversees Amazon Studios. Former Sony Pictures TV presidents Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg lead Apple TV Plus’ programming. Mike Hopkins, the former chairman of Sony Pictures Television with a background in distribution and business development, once held the top slot at Hulu and now reports directly to Jeff Bezos, overseeing Amazon’s video entertainment operations. Then there’s Kevin Mayer’s leap from Disney to TikTok, however short-lived.

Conversely, there are tech folk steering the ship at traditional outlets. Hulu founder Jason Kilar took up the title of chief executive at Warner Bros. and HBO parent WarnerMedia in the spring. (And Holland is likely to be seen as a welcome addition to many a scripted original executive suite.) In Netflix’s case, this next phase of tech and town commingling points to the further evolution of the broader industry, as the borders of entertainment and tech continue to blur.

Variety's Elaine Low contributed to this post.

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