Yesterday Netflix CEO Reed Hastings did something stupid, and was forced to apologize for it. Netflix had hired actors to feign enthusiasm about the company during its Canadian launch event. It was an unnecessary move, and when Netflix was caught, Hastings was suitably embarrassed. Today he was unsuitably embarrassed.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Hastings was asked repeatedly about the low price for Netflix's new Canadian service. Media and other web-based services are typically more expensive in Canada—for example, Netflix's cheapest American plan, which allows the customer one disc at a time in addition to unlimited streaming, costs $8.99. Zip.ca, the Canadian rip-off of Netflix (right down to the red envelopes!), charges $10.95 CAD (about $10.60) for its cheapest plan, which offers one disc at a time and no streaming at all.
Netflix's streaming-only service in Canada costs $7.99 CAD—about $8.25—and launched yesterday. It offers no DVD-by-mail service at all, which explains why it's cheaper than the American plan. The Canadians get less, so of course they should pay less. That's why it's understandable that Hastings gave a smart-ass answer when asked if American Netflix subscribers would be jealous of the Canadian "discount." His response:
"How much has it been your experience that Americans follow what happens in the world? It's something we'll monitor, but Americans are somewhat self-absorbed."
Hastings, a born-and-bred American, was being classically self-deprecating—one of our fiercest weapons against American stereotypes abroad. By using the stereotype of the ill-informed American in a silly context, Hastings both removes the power of the stereotype and proves it wrong, all in one shot. It's never fun to have to explain a joke, but here it seems like it might be necessary: This throwaway comment precipitated a storm of abuse from those who, somehow, took it literally. "Good for you that you make enough money off all your silly 'self absorbed' American customers that you can afford to be so arrogant in how you talk about us," wrote one of the hundreds of angry commenters on the Netflix blog.
Hastings, in a defeat for both comedy and common sense, was forced to apologize in a blog post. Hastings called the joke "awkward" and even made a grand statement, worthy of a politician, about how "philanthropically-minded" Americans are. He did, interestingly, note that Netflix is looking to add a (presumably) cheaper streaming-only option to Netflix "in the coming months," which is a good idea, but the point of the post was to beg forgiveness for doing nothing wrong.
I for one would like to apologize to Hastings for the behavior of our countrymen. Hastings made an incisive, self-deprecating comment, which the more humorless among us seemed unable to understand, and it's unfortunate that he was forced to pander and apologize for it. Sadly, this probably means he'll be more guarded in future interviews. That's too bad, but perhaps unavoidable. Still, at least some of us are raising a fist in solidarity.