A few years ago, I was endlessly scrolling through Netflix for something to binge when I found this dystopian, “Hunger Games”-style series with a simple yet intriguing two-character name: “3%.”
It’s a 2016 Netflix original set in a futuristic world where destitute individuals are selected to compete for a chance to be “saved from squalor,” per the show's description, and join the lucky 3% who get to live in the lap of luxury on an island paradise.
I was hooked from the first episode, but several hours in, I felt like something was off.
“Why isn’t the audio in perfect sync? Wait, is this not in English?”
More than a quarter of the way through the first season, I realized I was watching a well-done English dub of a Brazilian show. At the time, I was surprised, but I later learned that Netflix has a dedicated team working on subtitles and dubbing in over 30 languages.
Why are you seeing more foreign content on Netflix?
“3%” was the first of many foreign-language shows I’ve watched on Netflix. And if you’re in the U.S. and have noticed a wave of non-English content on your “For You” carousel, you’re not alone.
While Netflix makes personalized content suggestions, you’ve probably taken a peek at the "Top 10 in the U.S." row when looking for something new and bingeable. So when a hit show like South Korea's “Squid Game” or France's “Lupin” makes the cut, more people watch it. And as you know, what you’ve recently watched on Netflix plays a role in the content suggested to you in the future.
Netflix hasn’t been deliberately trying to surface more foreign-language content to American viewers, but the production of this content is intentional. After all, the streaming giant is available in more than 190 countries, and only 35% of its subscribers are from the U.S. and Canada, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The success of these international shows could change the trajectory of the TV and movie industry, especially for non-white and non-English-speaking casts.
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Why are foreign shows and movies so successful?
“I think we're coming off of an era where so much of television was dominated by white, straight, Christian men,” Linda Ong, CEO and founder of Cultique, an agency that analyzes cultural trends for brands, told NBCLX.
Ong thinks the “broadcast model” of reaching “as many people as you can with as many kinds of universal themes as possible” tends to be a very “white, hetero, largely patriarchal view.”
“Now we know because of the rise in digital and social, there's many other people with fascinating stories. And now we see in content a desire to have really specific personal narratives that have universal themes. But you don't have to look like me for me to be able to relate to you,” Ong, who's Chinese American, added.
Just after the release of “Squid Game,” in September Netflix revealed its top 10 series and films, based on the number of accounts that had viewed at least two minutes of the title, and the first season of “Lupin,” a French series with a Black protagonist, came in at No. 2. The rest of the list was dominated by English-speaking content, according to The Verge.
Ong called it “fascinating” that a show with a non-English-speaking, Black protagonist beat out such thick American competition on the platform. “Traditionally Black protagonists have not done well globally,” she said, adding that the beauty of the show is that it’s a “crowd pleaser” and “very accessible.”
How will shows like "Squid Game" and "Lupin" change the industry?
If altruism and cultural exchange isn’t Netflix’s goal, Comscore’s Paul Dergarabedian sees a ton of money to be made from expanding the audience for foreign-language content.
“There's a great incentive for Netflix because the more universal the content, the bigger the potential audience,” he told NBCLX. “If you want to look at it in a pragmatic or even a cynical view that companies only do things for profit ... this, in essence, would provide that additional revenue.”
After the release of "Squid Game," Netflix confirmed it became their most streamed show of all time, with 1.65 billion hours viewed in the 28 days after its Sept. 17 premiere, according to Variety.
“Every time you have a ‘Squid Game,’ that will embolden not just Netflix as a content provider ... to do more of that, but others," Dergarabedian said. "You think they're not talking about ‘Squid Game’ in boardrooms ... around the world? ... Everyone wants to be the next ‘Squid Game’ or the next ‘Parasite.’”
Dergarabedian, who prefers to call content “internationally-flavored” instead of “foreign,” believes race, culture and language don’t dictate the quality of a story, thanks to the “universal language of film.”
“Content is global, characters are global, perspectives are global, and that's really important,” he said.