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Why Netflix is diving deeper into interactive storytelling

Netflix announces that Bear Grylls will front its next choose-your-adventure experiment–and there’s more to come in horror, adventure, and romance.

Why Netflix is diving deeper into interactive storytelling
[Photo: freestocks.org/Unsplash]

Following on the heels of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch–the social-media sensation, choose-your-own-adventure film that Netflix launched last December—the company is leaning further into interactive storytelling, seeing it as the next, innovative frontier in TV shows and movies. The strategy will help Netflix differentiate itself as it faces increased streaming competition from the likes of Apple–which is announcing details about its new video service at an event next week–and Disney, which is launching a family entertainment OTT service, Disney+, later this year. 

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At a press event Monday, Netflix announced You vs. Wild, an eight-episode series starring survival expert Bear Grylls that will allow viewers to make choices about the courses that Grylls follows on his expeditions. “It’s not quite as dark as Bandersnatch, I don’t think,” joked Todd Yellin, Netflix’s VP of product.

Yellin explained that Netflix began experimenting with interactive shows in the kids’ space, because “kids don’t have established rules. They assume that’s the way the world is supposed to be. They’ll try it.”

When Netflix created an interactive episode for the kids’ series Puss ‘n Boots, the show did well, Netflix claims, prompting it to try out more kids’ interactive projects. According to Netflix, they also resonated. “That settled the question for kids,” Yellin says, “but it was still a wide open question of whether it would work for adults.”

Bandersnatch was “the big experiment,” he went on. But it almost didn’t come to pass. When Netflix pitched the idea of a show where viewers would have control of the plot to Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker and his producing partner Annabel Jones, Brooker “gave a nice smile and patiently said, ‘Yeah, it’s something I would consider. Maybe I’ll try that.'”

Yellin took his response as a polite no. But then a month later, Brooker called back and said, “I have a good idea,” and “we were off to the races.”

When the show dropped on Netflix on December 28, Yellin and other Netflix executives held their breath. “We didn’t know if a lot of people would watch it,” he said. “Would they actually want to pick their remote up and want to lean into and make choices? Would half the people do that? How often would they want those choices? Every minute? Every five minutes?”

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But the response, he says, was a resounding yes, with Yellin stating that the show did well not just in the U.S. and the U.K. but also South Africa, Spain, Germany, South Korea, and other territories. He did not provide any details.

Later in the day, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings offered his own endorsement, saying, “Like many of you, I got addicted to Bandersnach. What’s the significance of the cereal or not the cereal? All the different options. And it’s a neat experience. I don’t know if I would do it every day, but as part of my viewing experience, it’s pretty exciting.”

Having moved from kids to sci-fi to reality, Netflix says it is now exploring interactive shows in genres like romance, adventure, and horror. In addition to helping Netflix differentiate itself from its forthcoming competition, the interactive experiments also boost engagement, increasing the time spent on a given program. This is important for Netflix, as it further promotes the time spent in its app. Last week, one of its programming executives, Cindy Holland, revealed that the average subscriber spends two hours a day watching Netflix, and recent shareholder letters have focused on how Netflix has a lot of room to grow, stating that it represents just 10% of screen time in the United States. Or as it rather cheekily put it last January, “We compete with (and lose to) Fortnite more than HBO.”

To figure how best Netflix can promote deeper commitment from viewers, it is also analyzing how people watched Bandersnatch to refine what the choice points are and at what cadence they occur in a film or TV show. “How much agency should [viewers] have?” Yellin mused. 

“We want to try a bunch of interactive titles and see how it plays out. We want to keep expanding and innovating in the storytelling universe.”

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About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based senior 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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