Netflix and Amazon turnover in exec ranks rises as streaming giants battle

Former Netflix product chief Neil Hunt tries to explain to investors how season 3 of "Orange Is the New Black" went so badly off the narrative rails.

In some respects, these are boom times for the biggest SVOD players. Netflix and Amazon are spending a combined $10.5 billion on original content and are racking up awards, buzz and subscribers at an impressive clip. (Profits are still a ways off, of course.)

In the executive suite, however, things are feeling a lot more unsettled, with a lot of high-profile comings and goings of late. Netflix said last week that Chief Product Officer Neil Hunt would be leaving the company after 18 years, with international exec Greg Peters replacing him in July. Chief Talent Officer Tawni Cranz, a 10-year veteran, is also leaving to “pursue other interests.”

Those moves come after a couple of high-profile departures at Amazon. Comcast poached Euan McLeon to lead its Video IP Engineering and Research unit in Denver. Amazon also recently said goodbye to Head of Channels Michael Paull, who decamped for a position at BAMTech. More broadly, the notion of poaching Hollywood execs by tech interlopers has flared up in a legal battle between Netflix and 21st Century Fox over the exodus of Fox execs now working for Netflix. 

Some caveats are in order here: No large company, especially in the technology sector, remains intact from top to bottom, year after year. A degree of change is inevitable. In the case of Netflix, it is actually fairly remarkable that most senior management survived the “Flixster” fiasco, a share price-decimating stumble that might have cause wholesale changes at other companies. Plus, the SVODs have created a market where everyone wants to set up shop, so the idea of Comcast wooing away an Amazon engineer is hardly shocking.

Still, the moves do shed some light on the strain at companies moving aggressively to disrupt mature markets like the cable bundle and theatrical exhibition. Both have faced scrutiny for their treatment of workers. In one major exposé that focused on Amazon’s workforce well beyond video, the New York Times gathered an array of evidence of the company’s often-grueling workplace culture. And in his recent reported essay about Netflix for the New York Times Magazine, Joe Nocera included an unforgettable anecdote from Patty McCord, Cranz’s predecessor as chief talent officer. She and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings developed a performance review system whereby he would ask himself if he would hire the same person for the same position if it were to open up. If the answer was no, he would let them go and move on. Eventually, McCord fell victim to the system she had helped create.

The fact that Netflix and Amazon are engaged in a new level of arms race is likely to ratchet up the pressure on top exec talent at both companies. A report last December by Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter said Amazon’s “heightened focus on content spending, particularly for Originals, is a shot across Netflix’s bow, as is its recent international expansion.”