Netflix conquered TV. Now it’s coming for your phone

Señor Salme

Ever since the pandemic began, the home has become a sanctuary. The living room has become the cinema. Lockdowns have left millions with little else besides the small screen for entertainment. The health crisis has hit the fast-forward button on the shift to streaming.
Disney Plus had been aiming to reach 90 million subscribers within four years of its November 2019 launch – it hit its target in just 14 months. Amazon Prime has acquired millions of new users not just through its streaming platform, but the global surge to online shopping. Then, there’s the veteran of the streaming game – Netflix.


In January, Netflix reported that it had surpassed the 200 million subscriber mark worldwide. According to its chief product officer, Greg Peters, demand may be at an all-time high, but the strategy remains the same. “Covid hasn’t changed what we do,” explains Peters in a rare interview. “It’s been an accelerant – a bunch of people we thought would eventually sign up for Netflix did so earlier because they needed a form of entertainment.”
Netflix’s modus operandi may not change – but it continues to innovate. Recently, it’s been testing a playback tool (expected to be called “Play Something”) which sits on home screens, automatically choosing a series to play based on personalised recommendations. Netflix hopes it’s a remedy for the sensation we’re all too familiar with – browsing eternity. Faced with seemingly never-ending choice, precious viewing time is swallowed up by indecision.
The playback feature could, therefore, act as a bridge to cross the discovery gap, allowing a user to seamlessly find their next favourite show. “It’s the burden of choice,” explains Glen Davis, senior product designer at Netflix. “You come home and want to watch something on TV and, instead, you browse for 15 minutes. That was never the intention – you’re there to watch. When you select your profile you’re always in the browse experience. We asked ourselves, ‘What if Netflix started on playback as well?’ It’s the evolution of channel surfing but slightly different in that it’s always personalised.”
As the dominant player, Netflix has the freedom to experiment and break further ground. Among the areas it’s looking to expand its programming is short-form content. “We’re looking at how we can better serve members where they have a five- or ten-minute break – short-bite content you can consume on mobile,” Peters says. That’s why some subscribers now see a “Fast Laughs” test feed on their mobile app, consisting of 15- 45-second comedy clips in vertical video, from Rebel Wilson to BoJack Horseman.


With the streaming giant adding a record 37 million paid memberships in 2020, the challenge in 2021 for Netflix may not be so much user acquisition as retention. Post-pandemic, consumers will be spending less time at home and cinemas will reopen., And the battle for eyeballs has intensified – audiences can move between subscription services and seek out the best content. According to a Deloitte study, 25 per cent of US streaming subscribers have cancelled a service in order to sign up for another one.
“It’s being proactive in how it can stay on top,” explains Max Signorelli, media and entertainment analyst at consultancy firm Omdia. “It’s invested huge amounts of money into its own content production which it can keep forever. It can now look at replicating traditional viewing habits across demographics which, up until recently, were accessing content on linear TV via a remote control. It can appeal to younger audiences with its short-form content, too – targeting the next wave of subscribers who are used to social media video like on TikTok. It’s looking to the future.”
Netflix can draw upon the vast amount of viewing data it has collected from millions of people, around the world, over 14 years – on what you watch, when you watch it, how long you watch it for, and what device you watch it on. It’s also trialling new features such as its community “Top 10” menu option, personalised playback, or even its live “Direct” channel which has been trialled in France. “A lot of what we do is smoothing out points of friction,” Peters says. “Some of that will be driven by machine learning. Hopefully, we’ll get better at picking the best title for you – in the strongest possible way. That’s the card that trumps everything and decides where we go.”
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