Flip Side: What online streaming can learn from networks

Not that they need that much help, but the online guys could learn a little from the networks. While binge watching is an innovation that comes from being able to queue marathons on demand, it seems strange that Netflix has utterly ignored the fact that a lazy audience is a captive audience. Binge watching may be what online streaming services have brought to the table, but they borrow a lot from something they’ve lifted off websites: targeted advertising. I don’t mean in the way that Hulu shoves ads in the middle of (sometimes paid for) content but rather how Netflix utilizes their recommendation engine.

This engine is something that Netflix is incredibly proud of. They even ran an algorithm contest back in 2009 and awarded the winner a million dollars for the math that could sharpen their recommendations. They’ve bought, developed, and tuned an algorithm and they use it constantly. But do they use it well? We all know that at the end of a series or movie Netflix will serve up a little “what you should watch next”. They also have those ribbons of recommendations that go beyond the “top picks” with such customized names as “Dark Humor TV Shows Featuring a Strong Female Lead” and  the oft joked about “because you watched…” But is this really the best way to get people to click through? It would be on a web site where companies like Google thrive on serving applicable clicks. But even when watching on a computer, Netflix isn’t really a web site. It’s a TV channel, or even your cable lineup. So where does that put recommendations?

It should put them into playlists and channels. Why Netflix doesn’t offer up “90s sitcoms” and “British mysteries” as channels is a mystery of itself. You could obviously put a queue together to do this but that’s active and Netflix is a passive activity at its best, a stream of media that is exactly what you were looking for. These hypothetical Netflix channels could be tailored to the backlog that they want to get more exposure for, as well as your tastes. Hell, they could even have them be a mix of both. Tuning in to the sitcom channel and Friends is on? Offer the watcher the choice of jumping in at minute 14 of season 6, episode 6 along with everyone else or start the next episode of Friends where you left off. During the next half hour get the same option for Arrested Development.

This could even have implications for their own original content. I’ve seen people unsure of how to review things such as Daredevil or Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt once they’re released. Should it be assumed that everyone binge watched them? Should they be reviewed in groups of three episodes? A mini-arc at a time? If Netflix still did season drops but also had their own airing schedule this could solve that as well. It would allow for the communal water-cooler discussion based on the channel based roll-out while still leave that single sitting, all day marathon as an option for when you need to get through all of the new Orange is the New Black.

The only reason I can think of that Netflix hasn’t already done this is because they’re trying to distance themselves from the old guard so much that they’re throwing everything out the window. That’s a shame. I’ve previously pointed out what networks would be wise to glean from the streaming competition but this is something that the networks could actually teach them. The algorithm is already there, crunching the metadata behind the scenes and serving up lineups. Why not rearrange the ingredients already present and make a classic dish that people will love?

About Adam

Adam is a Jewish American who's sick of the white Christian male being America's "default" setting. For money he works in a public library because free books and information access are wonderful things. For love he writes here for his pet project, The Chaotic Neutral, which is always looking for more writers. You can follow him on Instagram, Goodreads, and at his oft neglected Twitter where he will try to post more, and probably live-tweet the Eurovision Song Contest.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.