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News brief: Sri Lanka's new president, New Mexico wildfire, Netflix earnings

: [POST-PUBLICATION CORRECTION: In a previous version of this report, we incorrectly said the U.S. Forest Service started a planned burn in New Mexico that escaped in 2000. In fact, the National Park Service started the burn.]

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Sri Lanka's new president will try to end up better than his predecessor did.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Indeed. The new president is the former prime minister. His name is Ranil Wickremesinghe, and he takes over one week after the former president fled the country. Last week, protesters crowded the presidential mansion, celebrated the old president's departure, even swam in his pool. They were demonstrating against a shortage of essentials like food, medicine and fuel.

INSKEEP: Reporter Raksha Kumar is following this story from nearby India. Welcome to the program.

RAKSHA KUMAR: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: How did the new president get the job?

KUMAR: Well, Sri Lanka's Parliament voted in the acting president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, as their new president, but the problem is that this is exactly what the protesters did not want, primarily because he was known to be close to the former president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who, as you said, was forced to flee. And Wickremesinghe will able to remain in office, at least in theory, until 2024, which was the end of Rajapaksa's term.

INSKEEP: You said, at least in theory, meaning that there might be some doubt as to whether he can endure the protesters.

KUMAR: Yeah. I mean, protests are reportedly under way in certain parts of Colombo and certain other parts of Sri Lanka. I spoke to some of the protesters, and they were extremely unhappy with the decision that the Parliament has taken. They are voicing their displeasure on social media, and they are promising further chaos.

INSKEEP: And this is a guy who has been part of the government for many years prior, even if he was not president previously. If he manages to stay in the job, if he manages to calm the streets enough to do something, what is it that he needs to do to address the wrecked economy?

KUMAR: You're right. Wickremesinghe has been the prime minister of the country for six terms, so he is no newbie in the office. But what he needs to do - experts in Sri Lanka and in other parts of South Asia that I spoke to were saying that he needs to liaise with the International Monetary Fund, and if the IMF pitches in with their help, then other countries might pitch in, too. So he would need to liaise with them as well - Japan, China, et cetera, who are actually waiting to see if the IMF trusts the country's leadership. The IMF, of course, will come to the aid of any country only on certain conditions, so it would be his job to bring in austerity measures. So this means that he might further alienate the already alienated population.

INSKEEP: How does this economic and political crisis in Sri Lanka fit in with what's going on throughout the region that you cover, South Asia?

KUMAR: Well, 1 in 4 people in the world lives in South Asia, so any blow to the economies of this region will have lasting effects on millions of people across the region. And that is to say that Sri Lanka's crisis is not an isolated one. There are several other countries that are down the similar trajectory.

So last week, Pakistan reached an agreement with the IMF to resume its loan program. So they were forced to raise fuel and electricity prices. And the country's economy is not in a great shape at all. The Maldives has actually seen a tremendous rise in public debt. Nepal has got imports of luxury goods, you know, to save on their foreign exchange. So as a whole, the region is in crisis.

INSKEEP: Country after country. Reporter Raksha Kumar. Thanks so much.

KUMAR: Thanks, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: In this country, in New Mexico, firefighters have nearly contained the biggest wildfire in the history of the state. For many victims, recovery is just beginning.

MARTIN: From member station KUNM in Albuquerque, reporter Alice Fordham is with us. Good morning, Alice.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: We should remind people, this fire - which, by the way, has burned more than 530 square miles, just huge - it is unusual because it was actually started by the U.S. Forest Service, right?

FORDHAM: Yes, that is right. And people are understandably furious about that. So the reason the Forest Service started the two planned burns that turned into this huge wildfire was that they were trying to reduce the amount of flammable vegetation in these forests, which are up northeast of Santa Fe. They are largely dense, coniferous forests. They are dried out by drought. And so they're a wildfire risk. But there were high winds, really low humidity, and once the fires got out of control in early April, they just ripped through this landscape, where quite a lot of people live, and many of them rely on the land for farming and forestry. So it has been devastating.

I spoke to one lady in my reporting last week. She's 78. She's lost her home that she's been in for 50 years. She said to me she wanted to send a bucket of ashes from her house to the Forest Service.

MARTIN: Wow. I mean, understandably, people are upset at the Forest Service, but hasn't President Biden himself said that the federal government is taking responsibility for this fire and is going to pay 100% of costs associated with it?

FORDHAM: Yeah, that's sort of what he said. So when he visited here, he talked about how terrible the fires were, and he said, we have a responsibility to help the state recover, to help these families. But so far, what the feds have done is paid for 100% of firefighting costs and then some things like debris collection, reseeding, emergency measures. But as Biden himself pointed out, it's actually going to take an act of Congress to appropriate all the recovery money that locals say they need. The worry is that it will take time for the money to arrive. There is some FEMA assistance now, but it's not a great deal so far.

This isn't the first time something like this has happened in New Mexico. In 2000, an escaped planned burned by the Park Service destroyed about 280 homes and damaged the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Back then, Congress passed a law that everyone affected would be fully compensated, but it did take time for that money to arrive.

MARTIN: OK. So meanwhile, what are the victims left with?

FORDHAM: So in the interim - so this legislative machinery is going to grind on. And there is reason for optimism that Congress will appropriate what could be hundreds of millions of dollars to completely compensate people affected. A bill to do that has been included in the big National Defense Act that's generally almost passed. It's gone through the House. It's on the way to the Senate.

But from my reporting, it's clear there are things that could happen to these fire victims in the meantime. So these are people that have lived on the land for many generations. They're worried they don't have the capital to keep up their ranches, keep up their logging business, while all this lawmaking happens. I spoke to one rancher who's lost a lot of grazing land in the fire. He said people are weighing up whether to sell. He might have to sell half his cattle. And also, I spoke to one local lawyer from the area. Her family's in a similar situation. She's working on a lawsuit to sue the Forest Service in case Congress don't approve those funds.

MARTIN: All right. Alice Fordham of member station KUNM. Alice, thanks for your reporting.

FORDHAM: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Netflix says it lost nearly 1 million subscribers between April and June.

MARTIN: The second-quarter loss came after a first-quarter loss. So why is Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings telling investors that it's a big win?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REED HASTINGS: Tough in some ways, losing a million and calling it success. But, you know, really, we're set up very well for the next year.

INSKEEP: OK. Netflix is closely watched, both because so many people watch it and because it's been a leader in video streaming. So we've called NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Eric, good morning.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hi.

INSKEEP: What is the case that a loss for Netflix is a gain for Netflix?

DEGGANS: Yeah, you know, I guess it's about managing expectations, right? You know, the answer to your question actually stretches back to April, when the company revealed that it lost 200,000 subscribers in the first quarter. And that was their largest subscriber loss in a decade. And back then, Netflix predicted they would probably lose 2 million subscribers in the second quarter. But thanks to the success this year of shows like "Stranger Things," they managed to cut that loss in half. Now, it still means they lost more than a million subscribers so far this year. And this is important because Netflix is seen as a bellwether for the entire streaming industry.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

DEGGANS: And their initial stumble in April made a lot of investors kind of question, you know, whether Wall Street had overvalued the streaming industry in general. I'd say yes (laughter). And now it feels like people may have a slightly more realistic idea of how the business is actually working.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about what that realistic idea is. I suppose if you're in the position of Netflix, you can say, we still have a big business and retrench, and it just won't be quite as big a business. Or you can say that there are still ways to grow after these losses. Do they have plans to grow?

DEGGANS: Well, Netflix talked about a few ways of boosting subscribers and revenue, including placing ads in some shows. Now, after years of resisting people like me asking why they didn't have a cheaper subscription tier where people could watch Netflix shows with some ads in them, the company has agreed to develop such an option. Now, they're working with Microsoft, and they expect to roll out this option in early 2023 to subscribers in a handful of areas with big advertising markets - I don't know, maybe New York or Los Angeles or something like that.

And I think they realize they've saturated the American TV market. And with so much competition from rivals like Disney+ and Hulu, they really need to offer less expensive options. They're also testing in Latin America a couple of different ways to charge subscribers more for sharing passwords. I think that's going to be a little tougher to pull off, even though Netflix says 100 million households might be accessing Netflix shows for free through password sharing.

INSKEEP: Well, this is really interesting to hear you talk about this, Eric, because they're not necessarily just talking about trying to increase subscribers again; they're trying to figure out how to monetize the subscribers they have or the people who are interested, although I guess these other formats could lead to different audiences of subscribers. What else does the company need to work on?

DEGGANS: They're basically an innovative disruptor that's become an institution. So some of the things that are at the heart of their business, which have distinguished them in the streaming world, they now need to reconsider that. For example, I think they should rethink the binge-watching model of releasing all episodes of so many series at once. The report touts the success, for example, of "Stranger Things." They said that they drew 1.3 billion hours of viewing in its fourth season this year. But it doesn't mention that that season was released in two chunks, and that allowed discussion to build among fans about the season over several weeks, and it encouraged some potential fans to check out the last two blockbuster episodes.

I think that shows that more series would benefit from seeing their episodes released over a wider space of time, giving Netflix the chance to build the new franchises that it so desperately needs.

INSKEEP: I guess we should point out this is still a cultural giant, isn't it? Just the very fact of streaming, the model of streaming, has vastly increased the diversity and availability of programs.

DEGGANS: It really is. And, you know, Reed Hastings predicts that typical traditional linear TV might be gone in five or 10 years. So, you know, they're building the model of TV for the future. It's really worth paying attention to.

INSKEEP: NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Thanks so much.

DEGGANS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: July 20, 2022 at 11:00 PM CDT
In a previous version of this report, we incorrectly said the U.S. Forest Service started a planned burn in New Mexico that escaped in 2000. In fact, the National Park Service started the burn.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.