4K HDR, algorithms, a rocketing user base, and virtual reality – what’s Netflix up to in 2016?
Taking a breather from the hustle and hassle of the Fira conference centre in Barcelona, TechWeekEurope left Mobile World Congress last month and headed for the hills to a specially kitted out Netflix mansion to chat with Chris Jaffe, the company’s vice president of user interface innovation.
Jaffe, and the rest of his team, build pretty much everything you see on Netflix, up to and including the play button, so it’d be tough to find a more suitable person to chat to.
Sitting comfortably in front of a huge 50-inch television, which would later showcase Netflix’s original show Marco Polo in 4K HDR, Jaffe quickly got onto telling us all about Netflix’s plans for 2016, and what it thinks it can bring its user base in the near future.
Talking of that user base, that’s one aspect of Netflix Jaffe was particularly keen to highlight.
Netflix describes itself as a premium global TV network, and it sees its January expansion to all of these countries as the first month of a long process of learning and experimenting with users.
“The goal was to launch something, get it in the hands of consumers, then make it better,” Jaffe continued. “We’re eight weeks into a learning effort that’ll take years.”
Netflix reckons it’ll add a further six million new subscribers in just this quarter alone. This figure can’t be underestimated as it’s effectively almost 10 percent of its existing user base that has been built up since 2010 when Netflix first offered a standalone online streaming service.
But is that rate of growth too much too soon?
“One of the things that’s different is that we have excitement, and an awareness that we haven’t solved every problem,” Jaffe responded. “But a big part of the answer is that it’s one global product. We launched in Japan in September, but we didn’t have to build a Japanese product. We launched here [Spain] in the Fall, we didn’t have to build a Spanish product. It’s one global product with a single global audience.”
Netflix is aiming for a place where it can offer every single member across the world exactly the same service, something that Jaffe said traditional regional TV just couldn’t do. To him, the traditional model of TV, and even on-demand and catch-up services from broadcasters, is “broken”.
“So if you think about where Internet TV is going, at the high level it’s about control and giving the user that. It’s really three things: enabling you watch what you want to watch, when you want to watch it, and how you want to watch it,” he said
Another aspect of Netflix that is a major draw is the company’s original programming. From Marco Polo, Sense8 and Narcos to a wealth of commissioned documentaries, Netflix Originals are a major reason why so many flock to the service.
“This year we will spend upwards of $5 billion (£3.52bn) on original content creation and exclusive licensing,” says Jaffe. This figure is up from around $3 billion (£2.1bn) last year. In 2016, users will see the launch of 30 new seasons and shows, which effectively works out at one new programme every ten days or so.
“It also means we will premiere ten original feature films this year. Those numbers don’t even reflect the original documentaries. It’s a virtuous cycle, as we add more members we bring in more revenue and more money to spend on content, therefore new members.”
Another tempting feature of Netflix is the service’s personalisation algorithms. For years now, shows have been algorithmically selected based on a viewer’s watching habits, but Jaffe explained how this will continue to improve in the future.
“When using Netflix on a phone, tablet, laptop, whatever, it mostly follows the same architecture. This is the notion of rows,” he said. “The rows are the heart and soul of our personalisation system. They are recalculated about every 24 hours, and those rows are selected from a candidate set of hundreds and hundreds of possible rows. They are selected based on the interests you have in real-time.”
But with the algorithm getting so good at fine-tuning and curating users watching habits, what about the times when you might miss out on a great new show that wasn’t showing up in your rows?
“The notion that you go so far down the road of algorithms so all you see is, for example, dark TV dramas, or whatever you like – that’s not good for anybody. Without having that variation in there, the experience isn’t rich and you lose that notion of spontaneity,” Jaffe replied. “The algorithms are tuned to address that. A big part of our algorithm work last year was tuning not just to watch was happening regionally but really, globally.”
This global delivery service, where users can enjoy shows that suit their tastes but may have not even originally been made for their market, is perfectly summed up in drug bonanza Narcos.
“We make things for a global audience. We bring the best of TV around the world to the world. Take Narcos, for example. A Brazilian director, a Brazilian star, making a series about Colombian subject with more than half of dialogue in Spanish, and English, and popular around the world,” Jaffe said.
“We’re making most of everything 4K,” said Jaffe. But the next thing is moving away from pixel density and thinking about picture quality. The next move we’re looking at is HDR.”
Jaffe explains how with HDR on, the blacks are blacker and the whites are whiter, giving a greater tonal range more comparable with the cutting edge of digital photography rather than the quality we’re used to for TV.
A clip from Netflix Original ‘Marco Polo’ was shown to us on a brand new 50-inch TV purchased especially for Netflix show house in Barcelona, and TechWeekEurope thought the difference was noticeable compared to regular 4K. Daredevil Season 2 will also premiere in 4K HDR.
Jaffe agreed: “We can see the difference between HD and 4K, but not necessarily between 4K and 8K, but 4K HDR is different.”
Mobile is, of course, a key target for Netflix. During one of Netflix’s official sessions at MWC, Scott Mirer, vice president of the device partner ecosystem at Netflix, said that 27 percent of all new users in 2015 signed up from a mobile. Whilst not as high as desktop or laptop sign ups, which came in at 42 percent, the figure is far higher than television and tablet sign ups at 21 percent and 10 percent respectively.
With that in mind, Netflix is planning new features for the mobile app, like a built-in IMDB-esque search engine that will bring up information about actors and directors on screen while the relevant show is playing on the second device.
“You can see Daniel Craig on screen, and then learn more about Daniel Craig, see other titles he’s in,” said Jaffe. “The best experience can interact directly with these characters and stories. This is something that the Internet is unique for. This feature will launch later this year on android and iOS.”
Unfortunately, it seems Netflix doesn’t have immediate plans to take advantage of the new wave of virtual reality (VR) that was so prominent at Mobile World Congress this year. What with 360-degree filming and cheap devices such as Google Cardboard and Samsung VR making virtual reality available to everyone with a smartphone, shows ready for virtual reality could be a real hit, but we’re going to have to wait a little longer to see them on Netflix.
“When we think about VR, we launched support for Oculus and Samsung VR last year. It’s a great experience, VR seems like a great application for gaming, but we’re interested to see where the story telling aspect goes,” Jaffe said.