Netflix’s Cindy Holland Relies on Data and Gut Instinct to Disrupt the TV Industry

'There's definitely no formula for success,' says Adweek's TV Executive of the Year

Cindy Holland
Holland, now vp of original content, joined Netflix 17 years ago and has seen it through several different phases.
Courtesy of Netflix

For Netflix’s Cindy Holland, overseeing original programming at the biggest streaming service in the world wasn’t always part of the plan.

Holland, who joined Netflix 17 years ago and is now vp of original content, has seen Netflix through several different phases, arriving when the company was a DVD-by-mail business and helping it evolve into a streaming-centric giant in its ongoing quest to build a massive customer base. “The only thing that wasn’t in our core initial strategy was that we would be in the business of producing original content ourselves,” says Holland.

That all changed, of course, when the company began investing in original shows like Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards, both of which premiered in 2013. Six years later, the company is an entertainment empire on par with established Hollywood brands. At last month’s Emmys, Netflix walked away with 27 wins, second only to HBO among all outlets.

“We certainly couldn’t have imagined that this would be the journey we were on when we started with original content,” says Holland, Adweek’s TV Creator of the Year. “It’s just really an exciting time.”

Holland, who began her career in the film business working for producers at Warner Bros., is now seated at the crux of entertainment and technology, heading up Netflix’s English-language scripted, unscripted and documentary programming. With an estimated $15 billion for original video content this year, she has an abundance of projects to oversee.

“My days have mostly to do with helping support the teams that are supporting the artists that are bringing all of the content to life for us around the world,” she says. “There definitely is no typical day.”

Long the dominant subscription video-on-demand service, Netflix will soon be facing a number of deep-pocketed competitors, as rivals Apple, Disney, NBCUniversal and WarnerMedia roll out new streaming services over the next several months. Those companies are pulling their IP from Netflix, snatching up streaming rights to popular programming and producing their own original content, all in an effort to unseat Netflix from the streaming throne. Earlier this year, Netflix lost the rights to both The Office and Friends to NBCUniversal’s Peacock and WarnerMedia’s HBO Max, respectively; meanwhile, ambitious originals like CBS All Access’ Star Trek: Discovery and Amazon Prime Video’s Fleabag are enticing consumers to other services.

To beat back the competition and continue to grow its 151 million-plus subscriber base, nurturing her original programming pipeline is crucial. “We need a very eclectic, wide and diverse range of titles available on our service in order to attract and retain that level of membership,” Holland says.

That’s no easy task. While Netflix relies on data about what its users have enjoyed in the past to make decisions about which programs to greenlight, “there’s definitely no formula for success,” she says. Instead, she and her colleagues often go on gut instinct. “It’s like when you meet someone new and you have this feeling that they might be a lifelong friend or someone who is really interesting to you. It’s after that point of interest or excitement where we look at the information we have to help support the decisions we make.”

That approach is paying off big time. This year, Netflix released hits like Russian Doll and Ava DuVernay’s miniseries, When They See Us, while producing additional seasons of popular series like Stranger Things, The Crown and Glow. The company has had the industry on its heels as it continues snapping up top TV creators in exclusive mega deals—“a mix of people we’ve worked with and want to continue working with for a long time, and folks that we have admired from afar,” Holland says, including Kenya Barris, Ryan Murphy, Shonda Rhimes and, more recently, Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 21, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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