OPINION: Tipping point for Netflix?

My first media streaming device was basically a Netflix machine. I don’t recall using any other streaming service on it, and in fact, I’m pretty sure there was no other streaming service available for it. But I didn’t care. Even up until about two years ago, I rarely ventured out of the Netflix app on my Apple TV box. I was aware of what else was out there, but there wasn’t a whole lot of reason for me to look at any other app. Netflix had the movies and TV shows I wanted to stream, and if they didn’t… no one did. Simple as that.

It’s pretty amazing how quickly things can change.

I didn’t think I’d say it this soon, but I think Netflix is on the verge of irrelevance. Even with the struggles they faced in the last five years — attempting (and failing) to split off their disc business, putting harsh new pricing in place — I didn’t think they’d fall from the top of the heap as fast as this. Today I only spend about 20% of my time in the Netflix app on Apple TV and that number is only going down. Why? It’s not just that the competitors are getting better… Netflix is getting worse.

Big mistake in the AppleTV app
In moving to the 4th generation AppleTV, Netflix standardized the look and feel of their app to match, well, pretty much everyone else. That meant large image previews at top and a compressed list of content at the bottom. Wow, I have to tell you that sucks worse than I really thought it would. And trust me, I don’t use a word like “sucks” without serious thought. The big image previews are great for a first time user but the lack of screen real estate for the serious watcher really gets on your nerves, and quick. I’m not going to say the previous AppleTV Netflix experience was “all that” but it was a lot better for casual browsing.

Even bigger mistake in the AppleTV app
So, the AppleTV experience is pretty much the same as every other streaming device and smart TV… except for one thing. Netflix left out the ability to search by category. I know, they’re all proud of themselves for coming up with thousands of unconventional ways to characterize their programs but sometimes I want to rely on “Science Fiction” or some other conventional genre. You can search for “Science Fiction” on the Netflix app on my smart TV, but the only way to do it with AppleTV is to use the voice remote. Other streaming apps don’t have this limitation so I have to wonder why Netflix does.

Netflix doesn’t seem to know me as well as it used to.
Maybe it’s just that I don’t use the app as much as I used to, but it does a poor job these days of showing me content I want to see. Much poorer than it used to. I thought it was my profile, so I created a whole new one and nope, it still shows me “Independent Movies Featuring a Strong Female Lead” far too often. Maybe what the Netflix people need to do is look at people’s viewing and browsing patterns. If people spend a lot of time browsing and don’t pick something, maybe start showing them new stuff. Except….

There isn’t a whole lot of new stuff.
Four years ago when Netflix sought to get rid of their disc-based business, we all thought that the company would be able to bring new releases to streaming quickly, so we wouldn’t miss disc. It’s funny, but Netflix rarely seems to have new releases for streaming. If I want them, I end up renting them … using another app. Instead of staying with their core business of movies, they’ve moved strongly into original programming… some of which I like and some of which I don’t. Sure, Hulu, HBO and others all have strong original programming, but they also have recent new releases too. Netflix seems to consistently lose out in this department.

When Blockbuster Video began to collapse, I commented that a brick-and-mortar company had to be doing a lot of things wrong in order to lose out to a mail-order disc one. I mean, in today’s “instant satisfaction” world, a local business really has to mess up pretty badly in order for you to replace them with a 3-5 day wait to get something through the mail. But mess up Blockbuster did, and they faded quickly as Netflix rose. Today, it’s all instant, and most of us have been streaming Netflix for half a decade. It would take a lot to get people to venture out of the cozy safety of their Netflix apps and look at other alternatives, but let’s be honest… Netflix is messing up as much as Blockbuster did, and if they want to keep justifying their prices, they’re going to need to fix something and fast.

So what can they do?
Netflix needs to fix its app experience across all platforms to make for easy browsing and better use of real estate. Hire some of the people from HBO’s app development team, or from DIRECTV’s. Whatever it takes. And make the experience IDENTICAL across all platforms and that includes searching by genre. Whomever thought you didn’t need that should be sacked.

Then, they need to focus on content and hope it’s not too late. Netflix has a ton of money and they can afford to pay top dollar for new releases. That’s just what they need to do… bring those new releases to Netflix before they go anywhere else, and make sure people know about it. Netflix is too quick to push their original programming and not quick enough to show you that you can have a great movie night with nothing but Netflix.

Hmmmm. “Nothing but Netflix.” Sounds like a great marketing slogan. Maybe get Bird and Jordan back to kick it off. Who remembers this great campaign?

That would be a great way to remind people that Netflix still has what it takes. I’m not sure it would resonate with Millennials, but it certainly would gather the attention of the people who actually sit and watch TV every night…

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.