"Television is a visual medium," says Netflix VP of Product Innovation Chris Jaffe, using a remote control to flip through his Netflix account on a Playstation 3. "For decades, people come home, sit on the couch, press one button, and there’s something visual happening on the screen. The Netflix experience has been, ‘Okay, I need to turn it on and then I start navigating through things and then I select something,’ and it’s not that rich."
Two years ago, Jaffe started a project that would make viewing Netflix on television feel more like the visual, instant experience of traditional channels. Today he’s set up in a New York hotel suite, decked out with large-screen TVs, to show off what he calls the biggest change to the Netflix television-viewing experience in the company’s history.
The redesign—which will roll out on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, new Blu-ray players, new Smart TVs, and Roku 3 starting November 13—replaces standard images of video boxes previously used in Netflix’s browsing mode with more comprehensive snapshots of content. While searching for something to watch, each movie or television show selected shows a three-photo slide show (one chosen by the content partner, two picked by an "internal enhanced content team"), friends who have watched that content, and extra information like awards that might persuade you to watch it. For television shows, each episode gets its own photo.
Netflix also says the new experience is faster. Though the familiar red loading screen still exists, it is absent between selecting and playing a piece of content. "If you decide to play something, you’re right into it right away," Jaffe says, snapping his fingers to emphasize the point.
In another room, he shows off the same design on a Roku 3. "There's more power in a cell phone," he says. Yet Netflix looks indistinguishable from the way it looked on the much more powerful PS3, a feat accomplished as part of an overall change Netflix made to its back end. Instead of building apps separately for different devices, the company has created a way to update them across all devices simultaneously. From a user perspective, that’s nothing you’d notice beyond more frequent and more consistent updates, but it's a large technical project. To pull it off, Netflix created its own programming language.
Netflix is investing so much in its television viewing experience because televisions are where people have always watched video at home, and that’s where they’re likely to watch more of them. When the company, in tests, pushes the exact same viewing experience to televisions and tablets, people watch more content on the more traditional device.
While Netflix has most often been compared to other online streaming options like Hulu and Amazon Prime, the entire category is becoming more comparable to traditional television providers. Nielsen recently added streaming viewers to its ratings. Amazon and Netflix both produce original content, and increasingly it’s Internet streaming services—even those like HBO Go from traditional content providers—that occupy the living room’s main screen.
"If you have to hone in on an opportunity, it’s TV," Jaffe says.