Reed Hastings Defends Netflix Censoring Content in Saudi Arabia

Netflix is the biggest subscription streaming video service in the world with more than 158 million subscribers, including about 1 million in Saudi Arabia.

Speaking Nov. 6 at The New York Times DealBook confab in New York, co-founder/CEO Reed Hastings was asked about the streamer’s decision earlier this year to delete an episode of “Patriot Act,” the comedy starring Hasan Minhaj, within Saudi Arabia. In the episode, Minhaj (formerly with “The Daily Show”) criticizes Saudi leader Mohammed Bin Salman, characterizing the crown prince as an impediment toward social progress in the Muslim country.

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“There are people in Saudi Arabia fighting for true reform, but [Bin Salman] is not one of them,” Minhaj says in the episode, which is still available in other countries.

Saudi officials contacted Netflix requesting the episode be cut, which the service agreed to do, citing a “valid legal request” from the government.

“We strongly support artistic freedom worldwide and removed this episode only in Saudi Arabia … to comply with local law,” Netflix said in a media statement earlier this year.

Hastings defended the decision, arguing Netflix remains in the entertainment business.

“Well, we’re not in the news business. We’re not trying to do ‘truth to power,'” Hastings told attendees. “We’re trying to entertain. And we can pick fights with governments about newsy topics, or we can say, because the Saudi government lets us have us shows like ‘Sex Education,’ that show a very liberal lifestyle, and show very provocative and important topics.”

Separately, Hastings, as expected, said Netflix would spend $15 billion on original content in 2019, with plans to significantly increase spending going forward.

“We plan on taking spend up quite a bit,” Hastings said. “We’re growing and investing around the world. We’ve been strong in series. Now we’re getting really strong in movies.”

Netflix plans to increase spending on animation and unscripted content in 2020.

“We’re investing heavily there,” Hastings said. “We’ll continue to push the envelope.”

Saudi Group Hires Ex-Hulu Executive to Jumpstart SVOD Service

The MBC Group, which claims to be largest media company in the Middle East, has hired Johannes Larcher, former SVP of international operations at Hulu, to upgrade its Shahid streaming video service.

MBC, like most major companies in Saudi Arabia, is majority-owned by the government, headed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The appointment comes about a week after Netflix reportedly agreed to remove an episode of original series,“Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj,” featuring the American stand-up comic and political commentator from Davis, Calif.

The episode was critical of Bin Salman and his alleged ties in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi – allegations the Saudi royal family deny.

Regardless, an MBC representative told CNBC that Larcher’s hiring is part of a five-year company strategy to inject original and local Arab-language content into Shahid.

“We believe that the long-established relationship of MBC with Arab consumers will enable us to produce even more culturally relevant content that could travel beyond the region,” said the rep.