Michael Hellein

The Long Fail

At this point, it seems like a million years ago that disruptive upstarts (disrupstarts?) like Netflix and the iTunes Store were following Amazon into the lucrative territory of the “long tail”, using the scaling magic of the Internets to monetize the individual proclivities of enthusiasts and weirdos with broad offerings that couldn’t be shoehorned into even the most sprawling brick-and-megastore.

When I think about the effulgent promise of infinite media availability coupled with frictionless convenience, this ad from 1999 usually comes to mind. In truth, no one wants every movie ever made - the guy in the ad would probably be happier to collapse on his motel bed and watch whatever wreck of bowdlerized cinema that’s flickering out from TNT or TBS. We just want the movie we want, whatever that might be, but we’d rather not walk the entire video store to find it.

While I’m not really a fan of the iTunes Store, or of iTunes as software, today I’ll be heaping my ire upon Netflix. Lest I be judged bandwagon-hopping, I’m going to tell you upfront that I don’t have a problem with this year’s pricing changes, or with the Qwickster kerfuffle. Those are certainly egregious business missteps, but they’d be bearable if the product itself were strong, and there’d be many fewer customer defections if the service itself were compelling. As it is, Netflix customers pretty much feel like Reed Hastings’ ATM. Here’s why:

Channel 54

It’s been a really long time since I’ve had cable. For years, I felt like I had better things to do than watch television, and I’d periodically join Netflix when I felt like watching some movies at home. For me, the convenience of cable didn’t balance out the paradox of choice effect, and the thing I hated most was waiting as the list of available entertainments scrolled by on Channel 54 (or whatever it was) or the interminable schedule served up by fancy new cable boxes - amazingly, being able to navigate the scroll didn’t much lessen the agony!

How can it be that this is still something that awaits disruption? Anyhow.

At the beginning of “Watch Instantly”, Netflix was exciting, and the uneven catalog was acceptable in light of the groundbreaking access to content it provided. Even getting Starz movies seemed pretty cool. But nowadays the signal to noise ratio is pretty clearly weighted toward static, and looking at the “new arrivals” is kind of like wandering into the video racks that used to lurk in the back of a deli, crammed with copycat jacket art gilding the lilies of films that surrendered any hope of profit long before they wrapped. It’s a challenge to find something I’d like to watch at any past or future moment of my life - let alone instantly.

It wasn’t meant to be this way, and it’s hard to imagine how it’s come to pass, but browsing Netflix is increasingly feeling like watching Channel 54.

With Recommendations Like These...

The main screen of Netflix tries to guess what I want, grouping movies by ad hoc categories based on my viewing and rating history. Seems like a good idea - but it totally depends on the quality of the recommendation engine. I had hopes that the crowdsourced algorithm that was greeted with such media fanfare might have led to a kind of quantum leap in recommendation quality. If it has, I certainly haven’t noticed.

Those ad hoc categories sometimes end up with comically absurd names, say “Cerebral Westerns with a Strong Female Lead”. It undermines the message that Netflix is trying to convey that their system “knows something about movies” and leaves me feeling pigeonholed - if I’m getting recommendations limited to this category that’s been selected for me, what am I missing that I’d rather watch instead?

It could be that I have odd taste in movies, but I think most people do: what people like and dislike is idiosyncratic. That’s something Netflix was explicitly trying to address when they launched the Netflix Prize - how do we recommend something that you won’t dislike? How do we plumb the far reaches of that long tail for those overlooked gems for something you’ll enjoy? It’s an admirable goal, but the problem is that it’s not working out.

An aside: part of the problem of recommendations is that Netflix’s user policies force my wife and I share an account. Until the recent price change, we had separate logins in order to maintain separate DVD queues - I didn’t like the new 2 DVDs at a time price point - but all our instant viewing ended up commingled. Netflix has the opportunity to get much cleaner data by encouraging user identity, but they’re mashing together disparate tastes in a way that’s probably polluting all of their recommendation data! It’s pretty mystifying.

Is it too much to ask that I never have to know about the long tail of “classic” westerns, that I can want to be ignorant of any “kids shows” despite my appreciation of the Iron Giant, or that I never see a movie no one even bothered to make a promotional image for? I know it’s unfair to expect magical serendipity - to log in and be presented with exactly the movie that’ll warm my hearts very cockles - especially given the catalog Netflix is able to license for online viewing. But that’s what I want, and that’s really what everyone who wants to queue up a movie wants. Until that halcyon day of perfect recommendation, we’ll probably settle for better filters against the tide of crap content.

Browse of a Thousand Corpses

That brings us to the user interface. We’re inundated with media we don’t want to watch, and we’ve got to browse (the brick and mortar metaphor should be a red flag) manually for the media we do. Unfortunately, Netflix makes this pretty torturous.

First, there are two interfaces: one for DVDs, and one for Watch Instantly. Both show only a few movies at a time, but the DVD browser requires clicking through a pager-style interface, while instant requires hovering to scroll through movies at a fixed speed. I’d guess that the difference theoretically has something to do with optimizing for a lean-back experience (the instant movie images are slightly bigger) but it’s a really strange choice to switch up the interaction this way. The rating stars are hidden by default in instant, where there’s the lowest signal to noise and ratings are most informative!



If to accept the provided category filter (yeah, I guess I’ll watch a Thriller), but prioritize the highest rated movies (an improvised crap-filter), you’ve got to click the category name (or see all in DVD browsing), then click “sortable list”, then click to sort by rating. It’s quite baroque to accomplish something that the software should be doing by default! Plus, it needs to be repeated every time you change the base filter (category).

To be fair, the experience of watching a movie online is pretty good! If the video quality wasn’t high enough, or the connection was interrupted and killed my playback, I wouldn’t be a customer at all. That’s to say: anyone who’s in the business has to have that covered, at the very least. I don’t want to ignore the fact that Netflix is doing a good job of actually serving their media, but I also don’t want to give them too much credit for solving that problem. Congratulations, Netflix operations! Now convince me that you care about my experience as a user by providing usable software.

What About the API?

Yes! Let a thousand flowers bloom! For Netflix has an API

Well, maybe not a thousand. I only know of one serious commercial implementation of the Netflix API, at InstantWatcher. It’s got a lot of search options, fast page loads, and it has the most important missing feature, in my mind: curation. For example, you can choose from New York Times Critics’ Picks. Unfortunately, the list seems pretty stale, which points to the main problem with an API: the number of people using an API product is orders of magnitude lower than the total number of Netflix users. 

If Netflix supported curated recommendations and all Netflix users were exposed to them, it would be much more likely that content providers (like the New York Times) would buy into pushing their own updates because it would increase exposure to their brands and content.

Further, the integration with your personal Netflix data is clumsy and requires a paid subscription to InstantWatcher. I think they’ve got a great layer on top of Netflix that can help mitigate some user experience pain, but it’s far from perfect. While providing an API frees us from the restrictions of a bum interface, it’s no substitute for a usable interface!

The $191.76 Question

That’s the cost of a year of Netflix, the $7.99/month one DVD package plus the $7.99/month online viewing package. To me, the DVD package is worth the cost, but it’s kind of sad to imagine going back to a Netflix without watch instantly. On the other hand, it’s less clear to me that online viewing is getting me what I pay for, and I certainly wouldn’t restrict myself to the shabby selection of the instant catalog. I feel like it’s an all-or-nothing proposition.

I’m faced with a product that frustrates me, which I see as overpriced. I’m certainly not alone, as Netflix subscriber numbers are in freefall. The question before the 11 million or so remaining users who, like me, are receiving DVDs by mail and viewing movies and television on watch instantly is: should we keep it up? Reed Hastings is clearly trying to put pressure on us to choose streaming and drop our DVD subscriptions, but I’m willing to bet I’m not alone in valuing the content of the DVD catalog over the immediacy of the online catalog.

Were I paying for more than access to a catalog - if the software Netflix provided did more to help me deal with their morass of low-quality content - things would look very different. In its recent spasms of desperation, writhing to avoid an AOL-like collapse into irrelevance, Netflix has become a company chasing its reflection, tripping over its own tail.