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Can Netflix Make Your TV Smarter?

With Netflix Recommended TVs, the streaming company is helping manufacturers make their products as easy to use as, well, Netflix.

Can Netflix Make Your TV Smarter?
[Photo: Flickr user Brian Cantoni]

Brady Gunderson, a director of product development at Netflix, calls 2015 “the year smart TVs got smart.”

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Gunderson made this pronouncement to a select group of journalists at the company’s Los Gatos headquarters this week, giving us a rare glimpse behind the curtain at the typically close-to-the-vest streaming company. Along with David Holland, a director of business development at Netflix, Gunderson gave a presentation on Netflix’s newly launched Netflix Recommended TV program, in which certain smart TVs that meet a list of criteria having to do with performance and functionality are given a Good Housekeeping-like stamp of approval by Netflix.

Among this year’s NRTV winners: Sony’s Android Full HDTV models; Panasonic’s 4K UHD with Firefox OS models; Roku TVs; and LG’s 4K UHD with web OS 2.0 models. (Television models, not brands, receive the NRTV designation.)

The NRTV program demonstrates the extent to which Netflix is approaching entertainment with a full-court strategy, putting tremendous resources not just behind its rapidly expanding streaming service–which plans to operate in 200 countries by the end of 2016–but behind every piece of the entertainment experience. That includes content, in the form of original series like House of Cards and the upcoming Sense8 from the Wachowski siblings, as well as the devices that people watch that content on. This approach makes Netflix unique in a world where companies tend to define themselves either as content or technology companies, and underscores the degree to which it is ambitiously attempting to redefine what an entertainment media company means in 2015.

To be clear, Netflix does not manufacture its own devices–and claims to have no desire to–but it works closely with manufacturers like Sony and LG to create TVs that make using Netflix an easy, seamless experience. The idea is to apply Netflix’s simple and intuitive approach to UI–“I just want this to work great,” as Gunderson put it–to televisions, which notoriously lag behind smartphones and tablets when it comes to functionality.

“We started asking ourselves, Why can’t TVs act more like smartphones?” Gunderson said, pointing out how smartphones and tablets never turn completely off when not in use, and thus don’t need to laboriously reboot when they’re activated.

For years this problem has persisted, Gunderson said, even as Netflix was having conversations with its partners. But in 2015, TV manufacturers have finally come out with a slew of products that Netflix deems satisfactory. As to why this year is a tipping point, Gunderson said there was no primary reason other than “it takes time.”

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Some of the main innovations on the NRTVs include the Instant On function, whereby the TVs wake up instantaneously and launch Netflix once the app is activated. Older models “take about another minute plus” to activate, Gunderson said, demonstrating with a 2014 Panasonic whose black screen sluggishly came to life over, indeed, several seconds.

Another advancement involves making TVs resume streaming Netflix exactly where a viewer left off, after the TV is turned off and on again. “You’re watching something and someone calls you, so you turn your TV off. Then a minute later you turn it back on. You want to be where you were before,” Gunderson said.

Netflix takes the business of testing TVs seriously. A special Faraday Cage that blocks out electromagnetic waves serves as a designated testing environment for the devices. The small, white padded room, which is nicknamed “The SHU”–in reference to a solitary confinement space in prison, which is also a motif in the Netflix original series Orange Is the New Black–is completely devoid of sound.

Inside, Gunderson joked, “No one can hear you scream.”

About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety.

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