Netflix’s new show is full of Spanish for a very good reason

September 9, 2015, 4:14 PM UTC
Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar in the Netflix Original Series NARCOS. Photo credit: Daniel Daza/Netflix
Photograph by Daniel Daza — Netflix

Netflix recently unveiled its latest high-profile show, Narcos, which tracks the bloody career of Colombian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar, and the DEA’s plans to take him down. It makes for great entertainment and a satisfying binge-watching experience. Even though it would be easy to peg Narcos as just another good Netflix original series, this one is different because it seems to cement a broader strategy to target Spanish language speakers both in the U.S. and abroad.

On the domestic front, the Hispanic audience in the U.S. is huge. There are 55 million Hispanics living the U.S. today, according to the Pew Research Center. Even though the population growth of the community is slowing, its buying power is increasing and is estimated to reach $1.5 trillion this year, according to Nielsen. That makes it an important demographic for a consumer-oriented company like Netflix. The Hispanic population is also becoming increasingly proficient in English, which can benefit Netflix’s overall service, which is English dominant.

Beyond the U.S., Netflix has inked a deal with Vodafone, which will offer the streaming video service to its cable customers in Spain. The move should help Netflix (NFLX)gain traction quickly on its rollout in October; in Latin America, the company reached 5 million subscribers last year, and that’s projected to grow to 7 million subscribers by the end of this year, according to Digital TV Research.


But impressive as this growth is, what’s equally relevant is Netflix’s strategy of offering Spanish language content, some of it in partnership with leading Hispanic television networks Univision and Telemundo, to U.S. subscribers and abroad. In fact, Netflix’s recommendation engine now spits out many more Spanish language movies and shows than in recent memory.

This isn’t a coincidence. It mirrors the growth of another genre that Netflix has increasingly become known for (at least to a subset of its audience): Bollywood movies. Over the past couple of years, Netflix has steadily beefed up its Bollywood lineup with popular content and is planning to produce and acquire local content from Asian markets like Japan as well. It will probably do the same with its Spanish language titles.

Underpinning some of this expansion are subtitles. American audiences are notoriously averse to subtitles, especially when it comes to mainstream entertainment. Yet in Narcos, with its widely popular themes of crime, violence, drama, and action, Netflix made the bold choice to use a mix of English and Spanish to tell the tale, with subtitles wherever necessary. Not only does it add to the authenticity of the show but can also attract Spanish speaking viewers who may be jaded by years of watching Spanish speaking characters in American shows deliver their lines in heavily accented and broken English instead, or having to put up with terrible dubbing.

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By being unapologetic about including subtitles in a show that is clearly manufactured for a wide audience, Netflix is not just embracing diversity, but making it fashionable and part of its business model. Even the Spanish telenovelas it carries provide English subtitles; and nor do the subtitles only go one way since Netflix also provides translations for its mega-hit shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black into Spanish.

That’s a very smart move given that Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world, so regardless of whether its viewers are Spanish speakers looking for American content or English speakers interested in Spanish language programming, or bilingual, Netflix is gearing up to cater to them.

Investors should take note, and stay tuned. Or as they would say in (slightly dated) Spanish: Manténganse en sintonía.

S. Kumar is a tech and business commentator. He has worked in technology, media, and telecom investment banking. He does not own any shares of the companies mentioned in this article.

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