3 fixes for Netflix’s “What to watch?” problem

Wasting time every night debating with yourself or your partner about what to watch on Netflix is a drag. It burns people’s time and good will, robs great creators of attention, and leaves Netflix vulnerable to competitors who can solve discovery. Netflix itself says the average user spends 18 minutes per day deciding.

To date, Netflix’s solution has been its state-of-the-art artificial intelligence that offers personalized recommendations. But that algorithm is ignorant of how we’re feeling in the moment, what we’ve already seen elsewhere, and if we’re factoring in what someone else with us wants to watch too.

Netflix is considering a Shuffle button. [Image Credit: AndroidPolice]

This week Netflix introduced one basic new approach to discovery: a shuffle button. Click on a show you like such as The Office, and it will queue up a random episode. But that only works if you already know what you want to watch, it’s not a movie, and it’s not a linear series you have to watch in order.

Here are three much more exciting, applicable, and lucrative ways for Netflix (or Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, or any of the major streaming services) to get us to stop browsing and start chilling:

Netflix Channels

For the history of broadcast television, people surfed their way to what to watch. They turned on the tube, flipped through a few favorite channels, and jumped in even if a show or movie had already started. They didn’t have to decide between infinite options, and they didn’t have to commit to starting from the beginning. We all have that guilty pleasure we’ll watch until the end whenever we stumble upon it.

Netflix could harness that laziness and repurpose the concept of channels so you could surf its on-demand catalog the same way. Imagine if Netflix created channels dedicated to cartoons, action, comedy, or history. It could curate non-stop streams of cherry-picked content, mixing classic episodes and films, new releases related to current events, thematically relevant seasonal video, and Netflix’s own Original titles it wants to promote.

For example, the comedy channel could run modern classic films like 40-Year Old Virgin and Van Wilder during the day, top episodes of Arrested Development and Parks And Recreation in the afternoon, a featured recent release film like The Lobster in primetime, and then off-kilter cult hits like Monty Python or its own show Big Mouth in the late night slots. Users who finish one video could get turned on to the next, and those who might not start a personal favorite film from the beginning might happily jump in at the climax.

Short-Film Bundles

There’s a rapidly expanding demographic of post-couple pre-children people desperately seeking after-work entertainment. They’re too old or settled to go out every night, but aren’t so busy with kids that they lack downtime.

But one big shortcoming of Netflix is that it can be tough to get a satisfying dose of entertainment in a limited amount of time before you have to go to bed. A 30-minute TV show is too short. A lot of TV nowadays is serialized so it’s incomprehensible or too cliffhanger-y to watch a single episode, but sometimes you can’t stay up to binge. And movies are too long so you end up exhausted if you manage to finish in one sitting.

Netflix could fill this gap by bundling three or so short films together into thematic collections that are approximately 45 minutes to an hour in total.

Netflix could commission Originals and mix them with the plethora of untapped existing shorts that have never had a mainstream distribution channel. They’re often too long or prestigious to live on the web, but too short for TV, and it’s annoying to have to go hunting for a new one every 15 minutes. The whole point here is to reduce browsing. Netflix could create collections related to different seasons, holidays, or world news moments, and rebundle the separate shorts on the fly to fit viewership trends or try different curational angles.

Often artful and conclusive, they’d provide a sense of culture and closure that a TV episode doesn’t. If you get sleepy you could save the last short, and there’s a feeling of low commitment since you could skip any short that doesn’t grab you.

The Nightly Water Cooler Pick

One thing we’ve lost with the rise of on-demand video are some of those zeitgeist moments where everyone watches the same thing the same night and can then talk about it together the next day. We still get that with live sports, the occasional tent pole premier like Game Of Thrones, or when a series drops for binge-watching like Stranger Things. But Netflix has the ubiquity to manufacture those moments that stimulate conversation and a sense of unity.

Netflix could choose one piece of programming per night per region, perhaps a movie, short arc of TV episodes, or one of the short film bundles I suggested above and stick it prominently on the home page. This Netflix Zeitgeist choice would help override people’s picky preferences that get them stuck browsing by applying peer pressure like, “well, this is what everyone else will be watching.”

Netflix’s curators could pick content matched with an upcoming holiday like a Passover TV episode, show a film that’s reboot is about to debut like Dune or Clueless, pick a classic from an actor that’s just passed away like Luke Perry in the original Buffy movie, or show something tied to a big event like Netflix is currently doing with Beyonce’s Coachella concert film. Netflix could even let brands and or content studios pay to have their content promoted in the Zeitgeist slot.

As streaming service competition heats up and all the apps battle for the best back catalog, it’s not just exclusives but curation and discovery that will set them apart. These ideas could make Netflix the streaming app where you can just turn it on to find something great, be exposed to gorgeous shorts you’d have never known about, or get to participate in a shared societal experience. Entertainment shouldn’t have to be a chore.

Netflix says it’s testing a shuffle feature for when you don’t know what to watch

Netflix is testing a new feature that can help you start streaming when you don’t know what to watch. The company confirmed it’s testing a shuffle mode of sorts, that will allow you to easily click on a popular show to start playing a random episode. The idea with the feature is to offer an experience that’s more like traditional TV — where you could just turn the set on, and there would be something to watch.

With today’s streaming services, that sort of seamless experience is more difficult to achieve. Instead, viewers now have to first select a streaming app, then scroll through endless menus and recommendations before they can settle on their next title.

The new shuffle feature, instead, offers something closer to the experience of turning on cable TV, when there was always some classic favorite show playing in syndication.

The shows being tested with the new feature appear to be those that people choose when they don’t know what else to watch, like The Office, New Girl, Our Planet, Arrested Development and others.

The Office, in particular, has a reputation for being a go-to pick for when you’re not in the middle of some other binge fest.

The TV shows appear in a new row, titled “Play a Random Episode.” To get started, you’d click any TV show’s thumbnail, and a random episode from the series then starts playing.

The thumbnails themselves are also adorned with a red “shuffle” icon to indicate they’ll play a random episode.

(Above: Seems someone had the right idea)

The new feature was first spotted by the folks at Android Police, who saw the option appear in the Android version of Netflix’s app.

Netflix confirmed to TechCrunch the shuffle feature is something it’s considering, but hasn’t yet committed to rolling out.

“We are testing the ability for members to play a random episode from different TV series on the Android mobile app. These tests typically vary in length of time and by region, and may not become permanent,” a Netflix spokesperson said.

Netflix for some time has been focused on ways to get users streaming its content faster, after they log in. That’s where it’s decision to run autoplaying trailers comes in, for example, or why it now features those Stories-inspired previews; or why it tested promoting its shows right on the login screen.

Image credit: Android Police

Netflix to open a production hub in New York and invest up to $100 million in the city

Start spreading the news. Netflix is coming to New York City in a big way.

The streaming media service has committed to invest up to $100 million to build a production hub and hire hundreds of new staffers in the Big Apple, according to a statement from Governor Andrew M. Cuomo.

Netflix’s new production hub will include an expanded Manhattan office and six sound stages in Brooklyn that could bring in hundreds of executive positions and thousands of production crew jobs to New York within the next five years, according to a statement from the Empire State Development Corp. 

“New York has created a film-friendly environment that’s home to some of the best creative and executive talent in the world, and we’re excited to provide a place for them at Netflix with our production hub,” said Jason Hariton, Director of Worldwide Studio Operations & Real Estate at Netflix, in a statement.

The new corporate offices Netflix has planned will occupy 100,000 square feet in Manhattan at 888 Broadway, housing 127 new executive content acquisition, development, production, legal, publicity and marketing positions. They’ll join the 32 employees Netflix currently has in New York.

Netflix already produces Orange is the New Black, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, She’s Gotta Have It, The Irishman, Someone Great, Private Life and Russian Doll in New York and has leased 161,000 square feet to build sound stages and support spaces in Brooklyn’s East Williamsburg neighborhood.

To sweeten the pot for Netflix, the Empire State Development Corp. has offered $4 million in performance-based Excelsior Tax Credits over ten years, which the corporation says are tied to real job creation. To receive the incentive, Netflix must create 127 jobs by 2024 at its executive production office and retain those jobs for another five years.

Netflix added 9.6M subscribers in Q1, with revenue of $4.5B

Netflix just released its earnings letter for the first quarter of 2019. Teh company says it saw growth of 9.6 million paying subscribers, up 16 percent year-over-year.

That’s significantly ahead of the 8.9 million new subscribers that analysts had predicted. On the financial side, it came in right at expectations, with revenue of $4.5 billion and earnings per share of 76 cents.

The company says it now has 148.9 million paid streaming memberships. Most of this growth (7.9 million of the net additions in Q1) is happening internationally.

Things aren’t looking quite as strong in Q2, with Netflix forecasting 5 million net additions, which would be 8 percent lower than growth during the same period in 2018.

As of 4:36pm Eastern, Netflix shares are down about 1.8 percent in after hours trading, presumably in response to that Q2 forecast.

This comes as Netflix is rolling out significant price hikes in the United States, Brazil, Mexico and parts of Europe.

“The response in the US so far is as we expected and is tracking similarly to what we saw in Canada following our Q4’18 increase, where our gross additions are unaffected, and we see some modest short-term churn effect as members consent to the price change,” the company says.

The letter also includes viewership numbers about a number of Netflix Originals. (Remember: This isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison with standard TV ratings.)

It says “The Umbrella Academy” was viewed by 45 million member households during its first four weeks on the service, “Triple Frontier” was viewed by 52 million households and “The Highwayman” is on-track to be watched by more than 40 million households. On the nonfiction side, the service’s Fyre Festival documentary was viewed by more than 20 million households.

The letter also says Netflix will be testing something new in the product in Q2, by releasing weekly top 10 lists of popular content for U.K. viewers: “For those who want to watch what others are watching, this may make choosing titles even easier.”

And of course, Netflix also faces increasing competition, with Apple and Disney both revealing more details about their upcoming streaming services in recent weeks.

Here’s how the letter discusses thos announcements.:

Both companies are world class consumer brands and we’re excited to compete; the clear beneficiaries will be content creators and consumers who will reap the rewards of many companies vying to provide a great video experience for audiences.

We don’t anticipate that these new entrants will materially affect our growth because the transition from linear to on demand entertainment is so massive ​and because of the differing nature of our content offerings​.

Facebook taps Peggy Alford for its board, Reed Hastings and Erskine Bowles to depart

Facebook’s board is undergoing its biggest shakeup in memory. On Friday, the company announced that Peggy Alford would be nominated to join the company’s board of directors.

“Peggy is one of those rare people who’s an expert across many different areas — from business management to finance operations to product development,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said of the change. “I know she will have great ideas that help us address both the opportunities and challenges facing our company.”

Alford, currently Senior Vice President of Core Markets for PayPal, will become the first black woman to serve on Facebook’s board. She previously served as the Chief Financial Officer of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s massive charitable foundation.

Facebook announced some serious departures along with the news of Alford’s nomination. Longtime Facebook board members Reed Hastings and Erskine Bowles will leave the board, marking a major shakeup for the board’s composition. Both Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, and Bowles, a former Democratic political staffer, have served on the board since 2011. Both men have been critical of Facebook’s direction in recent years. Hastings reportedly clashed with fellow board member Peter Thiel over his support for the Trump administration and Bowles famously dressed down Facebook’s top brass over Russia’s political interference on the platform.

Alford’s nomination will come to a vote at Facebook’s May 30 shareholder meeting.

“What excites me about the opportunity to join Facebook’s board is the company’s drive and desire to face hard issues head-on while continuing to improve on the amazing connection experiences they have built over the years,” Alford said of her nomination. “I look forward to working with Mark and the other directors as the company builds new and inspiring ways to help people connect and build community.”

Disney shares are up after the big reveal of its streaming service

Investors seem to think that Disney is on the right track with its plans for the new streaming service, Disney+.

On the heels of yesterday’s announcement of the streaming service’s November 12 launch date and slate of programming, Disney’s stock price is currently up 9% to $127.23 in morning trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

Ending months of speculation about what would and wouldn’t be included in a streaming package from the mouse house, yesterday’s “investor day”, satisfied public market investors that Disney’s run at the current king of streaming video, Netflix, would be credible.

Netflix shares were down slightly in morning trading, around 3.5% — or roughly $13 — to $354.50.

For stock market watchers, the big question was going to be pricing and on that front, Disney’s service didn’t disappoint. Although the streaming offering from Disney’s entertainment juggernaut was more about moving cash out of one pocket instead of another for most American consumers, as Matthew Ball, a media analyst and the former head of strategy at Amazon Studios, pointed out on Twitter.

American households already spend around $2.8 billion per year renting and buying Disney video — averaging around $24 per year for every household or 40 million annual subscriptions, Ball wrote.

While the market may be setting up the new entertainment landscape as a Netflix versus Disney battle there are important differences between the two and both are likely to thrive in the new era of streaming entertainment.

The companies that are most likely to be challenged by the streaming offerings from Netflix and Disney are AT&T’s Warner Media and CBS/Viacom .

Within Warner Media, layoffs and restructuring in the wake of the company’s acquisition by AT&T, along with the end of the network’s mega-hit “Game of Thrones”, could have serious consequences on its ability to compete as the company rolls out its own (partially ad-supported) streaming service.

Meanwhile, CBS and Viacom are still reeling from the scandal that brought down chief executive Les Moonves — although Viacom’s acquisition of PlutoTV gives the company some breathing room with a free streaming video and on demand option.

As paid services proliferate, the walls around intellectual property will only grow higher. Entertainment companies are all going to vie for more exclusive offerings and that means artists and creators will win as these companies pay more for quality entertainment that they can make exclusively to lock in subscribers. It’ll be a delicate dance between monetizing intellectual property on other platforms and keeping things behind a gate to bring in customers.

Especially as deep-pocketed companies like Apple and Amazon have their own designs on streaming entertainment.

Right now, investors and consumers seem to think that a Disney+ subscription is definitely worth the price of admission. How many other tickets consumers are willing to pay for is another question.

Original Content podcast: Director Theo Love explains ‘The Legend of Cocaine Island’

Most documentary filmmakers want to convince you that the story they’re telling is important. But Theo Love, director of the new Netflix documentary “The Legend of Cocaine Island,” said he was attracted to his subject matter for the opposite reason.

“A lot of the documentary subject matter that we had been considering and that we saw out there was pretty dark and very, very painfully important,” Love told me. “I wanted to make something that wasn’t important at all. I wanted to make something that was kind of just a silly story and that was just for entertainment.”

As Love explains in the latest episode of the Original Content podcast, “Cocaine Island” tells the story of Rodney Hyden, a middle-aged man with no drug-trafficking experience who learns about millions of dollars worth of cocaine that is supposedly buried on a Caribbean island.

Hyden actually plays himself in the film — not just as an interview subject, but in reenactments of key moments in the story. Love explained that choice as “a combination of necessity meets inspiration.”

“Look, this is an indie film, and we didn’t have a huge budget to get Jack Black or John Goodman to do the recreations,” he said. “But when we met Rodney, it was pretty clear from the get-go that he could do [them]. He just had that type of charisma, that you wanted to watch him.”

And while the film was made independently before being picked up by Netflix (which also gave the documentary its current name), Love said he was thinking about the streaming service from the start.

“I mean, documentaries really changed because of Netflix,” he said. “And the audience that documentaries are getting has changed drastically over the last decade because of Netflix. They’ve brought documentaries to the masses.”

You can listen in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

Tinder becomes the top-grossing, non-game app in Q1 2019, ending Netflix’s reign

For the first time in years, Netflix is no longer the top grossing, non-game mobile app. Instead, that title now goes to dating app Tinder. The change in position is not surprising, given Netflix’s decision in December to stop paying the so-called “Apple tax.” That is, it no longer allows new users to sign up and subscribe to its service through its iOS application.

The change was said to cost Apple hundreds of millions in lost revenue per year, given that Netflix’s app had been the world’s top-earning, non-game app since Q4 2016. Now, instead of giving up its 15 to 30 percent cut of subscription revenue, new users have to sign up through Netflix’s website before they can use the app on mobile devices, including both iOS and Android. (Netflix had dropped in-app subscriptions on Android earlier.)

App store intelligence firm Sensor Tower estimated Netflix had earned $853 million in 2018 on the iOS App Store. A 30 percent cut would have been around $256 million. However, after the first year, subscription apps only have to pay out 15 percent to Apple. But Netflix had a special deal, according to John Gruber — it only had to pay 15 percent from the get-go.

In any event, it’s still a large sum. And one large enough to end Netflix’s reign at the top of the revenue charts.

In Q1 2019, Sensor Tower estimates Netflix pulled in $216.3 million globally, across both the Apple App Store and Google Play, down 15 percent quarter-over-quarter from $255.7 million in Q4 2018.

Meanwhile, Tinder’s revenue has climbed. In the first quarter, it saw revenue grow by 42 percent year-over-year, to reach $260.7 million, up from $183 million in Q1 2018.

That put it at the top, according to both Sensor Tower and App Annie’s estimates.

Beyond Tinder, Line, and Line Manga, the rest of the top grossing, non-game apps in Q1 2019 were also focused on streaming, music and video, in Sensor Tower’s analysis. This included Tencent Video (No. 3), iQIYI (No. 4), YouTube (No. 5), Pandora (No. 6), Kwai (No. 7), and Youku (No. 10).

Meanwhile the top downloaded, non-game apps in the quarter were largely those focused on social media, messaging and video. This included, in order: WhatsApp, Messenger, TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, SHAREit, YouTube, LIKE Video, Netflix and Snapchat.

tiktok ios icon

TikTok, notably, has held onto its No. 3 position, having grown its new users 70 percent year-over-year, by adding 188 million in Q1. The growth was driven by India, where 88.6 million new users joined the app, compared with “just” 13.2 million in the U.S. — or 181 percent year-over-year growth.

To date, Sensor Tower has seen the app installed over 1.1 billion times. (But keep in mind that’s not total users — many people install it on multiple devices. Nor is it monthly active users. On that front, the app has 500 million monthly actives, as of the end of its third quarter 2018.)

TikTok also did well on the revenue side thanks to in-app purchases, though not well enough to start ranking in the top charts. User spending was 222 percent higher in Q1 2019 versus Q1 2018, reaching an estimated $18.9 million worldwide.

Overall, Apple’s App Store accounted for 64 percent of revenue in Q1, with consumer spending reaching $12.4 billion compared to Google Play’s $7.1 billion. New app downloads slowed on iOS in Q1, decreasing 4.7 percent year-over-year to 7.4 billion, while Google Play downloads grew 18.8 percent to 20.7 billion.

Netflix partners with Sirius XM on new comedy channel, ‘Netflix is a Joke’

For the first time, Netflix is making its content available to another subscription media service. The company announced today it will bring segments from its popular stand-up specials, plus other original content, to Sirius XM’s new comedy station called “Netflix is a Joke,” beginning on April 15, 2019.

The station will be offered on Sirius XM’s Channel 93, and will offer highlights from Netflix stand-up specials, comedy talk shows, and other original programming, says Netflix.

This includes content from big names like Adam Sandler, Aziz Ansari, Bill Burr, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Ellen DeGeneres, Gabriel Iglesias, Jerry Seinfeld, John Mulaney, Ken Jeong, Ricky Gervais, Sarah Silverman, Sebastian Maniscalco, Trevor Noah, Wanda Sykes, and others.

The channel will also introduce its own original daily show, filmed at Sirius XM’s new L.A. studios, where famous celebs and comedians will drop by to discuss pop culture and other hot topics of the day.

The deal with Sirius XM represents a notable milestone for Netflix, as it’s hasn’t before partnered with another subscription-based media company to reach a new audience with its content. It likely chose to do so in this case because Sirius XM isn’t a direct competitor. Plus, the radio platform could serve to promote Netflix’s programming to a valuable target demographic – those willing to pay for access to original content.

In addition to the clips and segments from Netflix shows, Sirius XM listeners will also be the first to hear new material from top comics, before their Netflix specials launch on the streaming service.

“Netflix Is A Joke Radio on SiriusXM will be an audio extension of our award-winning stand-up comedy on Netflix,” said Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos, in a statement. “We are thrilled to feature some of the greatest and funniest performers in the world with highlights from Netflix shows as well as original programming that further celebrates the art of comedy, and we are excited to do this in partnership with SiriusXM.”

The channel is now one of several comedy stations offered on Sirius XM, along with Kevin Hart’s Laugh Out Loud Radio Channel, Comedy Central Radio, Raw Dog Comedy, Jeff & Larry’s Comedy Roundup, and Sirius XM Comedy Greats, among others.

It also arrives shortly after Sirius XM announced another new station to capitalize on its Pandora merger: Pandora NOW, the first station to stream across both services.

Similarly, the new Netflix station will also stream content that’s available elsewhere. That’s a bit of a shift from Sirius XM’s earlier model where it focused largely on exclusives, to one that acknowledges the power another big-name brand can bring to its service.

“SiriusXM is delighted to become the audio home for Netflix’s blockbuster comedy programming,” said Scott Greenstein, President and Chief Content Officer, SiriusXM, in a release. “Netflix has established itself as the unrivaled video source for stand-up, attracting the biggest names in the industry as well as break-out newcomers, and we’re eager to deliver SiriusXM subscribers access to their star-studded library, new specials, and original live shows,” he added.

The right way to do AI in security

Artificial intelligence applied to information security can engender images of a benevolent Skynet, sagely analyzing more data than imaginable and making decisions at lightspeed, saving organizations from devastating attacks. In such a world, humans are barely needed to run security programs, their jobs largely automated out of existence, relegating them to a role as the button-pusher on particularly critical changes proposed by the otherwise omnipotent AI.

Such a vision is still in the realm of science fiction. AI in information security is more like an eager, callow puppy attempting to learn new tricks – minus the disappointment written on their faces when they consistently fail. No one’s job is in danger of being replaced by security AI; if anything, a larger staff is required to ensure security AI stays firmly leashed.

Arguably, AI’s highest use case currently is to add futuristic sheen to traditional security tools, rebranding timeworn approaches as trailblazing sorcery that will revolutionize enterprise cybersecurity as we know it. The current hype cycle for AI appears to be the roaring, ferocious crest at the end of a decade that began with bubbly excitement around the promise of “big data” in information security.

But what lies beneath the marketing gloss and quixotic lust for an AI revolution in security? How did AL ascend to supplant the lustrous zest around machine learning (“ML”) that dominated headlines in recent years? Where is there true potential to enrich information security strategy for the better – and where is it simply an entrancing distraction from more useful goals? And, naturally, how will attackers plot to circumvent security AI to continue their nefarious schemes?

How did AI grow out of this stony rubbish?

The year AI debuted as the “It Girl” in information security was 2017. The year prior, MIT completed their study showing “human-in-the-loop” AI out-performed AI and humans individually in attack detection. Likewise, DARPA conducted the Cyber Grand Challenge, a battle testing AI systems’ offensive and defensive capabilities. Until this point, security AI was imprisoned in the contrived halls of academia and government. Yet, the history of two vendors exhibits how enthusiasm surrounding security AI was driven more by growth marketing than user needs.