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Opinion: Netflix readies for launch

New Zealand is seeing a boom in streaming services. Spark launched Lightbox last year and is currently enjoying a lot of success with exclusive show Better Call Saul. Sky’s new service Neon has suffered what can only politely be called technical hiccups. (As at the time of writing I still have not been able to register for Neon through the website let alone view any content.) TVNZ On Demand is launching a new version of its service. And Quickflix and Ezyflix continue to do their thing.

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Netflix, due to launch in New Zealand next month, is seen as the Holy Grail by many streaming service users. Despite not having the latest TV shows like TVNZ On Demand or Hulu (another US-based service), the sheer size of Netflix’s catalogue, along with its suggestion service, means users tend to be spoilt for choice.

Of course, that will be a little different in New Zealand.

The latest Netflix press release proclaimed the service would be bringing local content to Australia and New Zealand. The details revealed this seems to be exclusively Australian content. Compared with Lightbox’s push for more locally created shows, it feels like a let down.

Not that Netflix doesn’t make its own shows. Bloodline, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Marvel’s Daredevil will soon sit alongside other Netflix shows like Orange is the New Black and House of Cards.

It’s not just content that’s important to Netflix, but also how it looks. Neon has already been heavily criticised for not offering content in HD; a very important aspect when streaming high quality new shows.

Netflix’s content will be accompanied by closed captions (subtitles for the hearing impaired). This will make them the only service in New Zealand to do so, a perk of already having a system in place overseas.

I had a chance to speak with Neil Hunt, chief product officer leading the team that designs, builds and optimises the Netflix service.

The broadband issue

Netflix was touted here a few years ago and was shot down in part by the quality of our broadband network. So I asked Neil what had changed in the last two years. The answer was pretty much nothing, but how Netflix delivers has changed.

Through the Open Connect Initiative, Netflix partners with local ISPs and sets up CDN (content distribution network) “boxes”. These boxes mean that instead of your content coming through a pipe across the Pacific, it’s coming from your ISP. The more boxes, the better the service.

The content will be delivered in a variety of bit rates or quality levels: starting at 500kbps, through to 1.5Mbps (DVD quality) and 6Mbps (HD). Netflix has the capacity to get up to 4K quality, though with the required bitrate of 15Mbps that service may only be seen by users on a fibre network and who also own a new 4K TV. All of Netflix’s new shows are filmed in 4K. The Netflix application will choose the best rate for you based on the speed in your home.

Neil said his team has worked hard on "simultaneous stress", so there would be little to no interruption in the quality of what you are watching if anything should slow down.

He also hinted at new developments in HDR (high dynamic range). The idea behind this is not to get more pixels but to get “better” pixels on the screen. But this always means more information needs to be transferred. This is what Neil thinks the next wave of TV shows will have and what Netflix is working towards.

Of course, the higher the quality of the stream, the more data you’ll burn through. A good quality stream will use up roughly 750MB per hour. I asked if this was a problem given the large number of broadband plans that still have data caps.

In Canada, most Netflix users had 40, 60 or 80GB plans, so it set the default quality level very low. Users could turn it to automatic if they wanted. After a while it trialled automatic quality as the default and there were no complaints from customers about data usage, so it was rolled out to everyone. Now it’s not even a discussion.

At the beginning of March, Netflix will be available on your Smart TV (most models), Apple TV, game consoles (PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One), iOS devices, Android devices and even Windows phones and tablets.

Already using Netflix?

So the question is, what about all of those Kiwis who have already signed up for Netflix, either through a DNS service or Slingshot’s Global Mode? Well, when you sign up for a Netflix account your account is “global”, meaning that if you have a New Zealand account, but happen to sign into Netflix while you’re in the US, then you’ll get access to everything in the US and vice versa (which may be a rude shock for American users travelling here).

So New Zealand users with American Netflix accounts have nothing to fear in that regard. But if Netflix has its way, the discrepancy between what is offered in different countries will fade away. The plan is to merge everything into a global catalogue, removing differential distribution and release dates.

Suggestion service

The days of watching what we are offered at a particular time are almost over. The problem then becomes, well what do I want to watch?

“People think they can plough through thousands of titles,” says Neil to my suggestion of a page with every title listed, “but in reality they give up after 90 seconds”. Instead, Netflix shows you titles it’s pretty sure you’ll like based on factors like “strong female characters”, “exciting plot lines”, “dark and foreboding”. It takes what you’ve already watched and uses an algorithm with matrix factorisation to figure out which elements are common to all of them. Then it makes suggestions based on other titles with the same elements or almost all the same elements in order to shake things up a little.

It also monitors the shows you don’t watch - the ones it suggests to you but you don’t seem interested in watching and the ones that you started watching and then stopped after five minutes. All of this combines to give Netflix a very good picture of the type of things you like to watch. This is also why Netflix has different profiles for users, because your taste in movies may be very different from your partners' or your kids'.

So we only have a few weeks to wait before the launch and in that time we will undoubtedly hear more content announcements, from Netflix as well as its competitors. And then we’re all going to have to start deciding which service (or services) we want to sign up for.

Hadyn Green travelled to Auckland courtesy of Netflix.

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