The Tenuous Future, Mediocre Design, and Negligible Payouts of Netflix
For its future as a streaming only service, Netflix is reliant on deals with content owners, a situation which has the service being described aptly as a castle on quicksand. As evidence of its constantly-changing library, Netflix recently lost Starz content but today added Dreamworks Animation films to their library. However, Amazon also doubled their Prime library today (which at $79/year -- including an unlimited free two-day shipping tie-in -- compares favorably to Netflix's $96 annual fee). Competition is heating up, but I can't help but note one other thing about Netflix: the design of their website and most of their apps is, and always has been, mediocre at best. Which is to say nothing of the connection between the service's benefit to consumers and its detriment to content creators.
Despite the fact that Netflix reportedly split-tests many different designs and only uses the best one, I've always thought that their user experience is just a tad short of atrocious. They killed their community many moons ago (remember having "friends" on Netflix?) and have not replaced it since. Other than a basically useless Top 100, they don't even let you see what's popular, and every new iteration seems to get worse. The recently redesigned homepage is exactly what you try to avoid as a web designer: a "brick wall." A brick wall is a bunch of blocks in a grid that forces the user to choose between a ton of options, without clearly prioritizing any of them. A screenshot of my Netflix homepage -- which seems to misinterpret this design faux pas as a good thing -- is at right. I'm not saying I'm the best designer in the world, but I was a Senior Designer at MTV in a past life. So after many years of being a Netflix customer, stumbling on the following web site was a godsend.
InstantWatcher to the rescue?
Thanks to a New York Times article I discovered a free website ((Most of InstantWatcher's feature are free, but a $10-a-year subscription enables you to sort your Netflix queue directly on InstantWatcher’s site, and also lets you shuffle movies from your Netflix queue into a “virtual” queue on InstantWatcher.)) named InstantWatcher, which gives you -- get this -- basic sorting tools, which makes all the difference in the world:
Yes, the simple ability to see what's popular on Netflix -- or filter out all non-HD titles, for example -- requires a separate website. Are you kidding me? Is Netflix still in beta or something, all these years later? This doesn't even begin to get into the kind of social features that Netflix should revolve around -- what are your real-world friends liking/recommending/watching? -- which Spotify embodies as Netflix's all-you-can eat equivalent in the music world. ((I should note that, despite being a paying Spotify user, I think their service would be much stronger with an editorial component as seen at work in their chief competitor in the U.S. -- and another former employer of mine -- Rhapsody.)) If you're a Netflix user, check out InstantWatcher, click on any of the categories in the red nav up top, and discover the wonders that a simple "sort by" functionality brings to the table.
Consumer vs. Creator
Design concerns aside, the question for creatives is, what do these all-you-can eat services pay the content creators? Does anyone have any real numbers? I'd certainly love to see those figures: I almost feel guilty when watching a friend or colleague's film on Netflix, because I know they're getting practically nothing out of the exchange. It's better to watch a film on Netflix than pirating it, of course, but how much better is the question. If Netflix is anything like the music industry, where an artist receives between $0.0004 and $0.002 per stream, none of us are going to make a living by having our content on Netflix. Instead, if the future of film distribution is VOD, it's going to be up to a-la-carte VOD services, which we may not prefer as consumers, but should as creators.
Which makes me wonder if Netflix will ever add a "pay per watch" (rental) VOD section, since they already have the customer base (with Amazon Instant Video in addition to Amazon Prime, Amazon takes one such hybrid approach). If they don't, this will make a number of new startups in this space happy -- more on those soon. For now, check out InstantWatcher, which should be of real benefit to you as a consumer but disadvantageous to you as a content creator, because of the increased access it offers to a world of (seemingly) unlimited content at rock-bottom prices. When it comes to what a movie is worth, there's a direct relationship between what we expect to pay as consumers and what we hope to get paid as content creators, and the same race to the bottom that helps the former is extinguishing our ability to make a living as the latter. Just something to keep in mind next time you hear someone complaining about a price increase!
UPDATE: There's an excellent article at indieWIRE today that includes more details about Netflix's payouts, which are not based on a per-stream basis: The Decline of Indies on Netflix: Were They Amputated With the Long Tail?