Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Five Things That Netflix Could Improve

I admit it; I love Netflix.  I enjoy the convenience of browsing movies at any hour of the day or night, and having them sent directly to my home or streaming on my TV.  Even when they made dumb decisions like the Qwikster debacle, or broke out streaming and disc rentals into separate plans, I decided to stand by them.  In spite of the recent price hikes, dollar for dollar, it’s still one of the best entertainment values out there (Okay, if anyone at Netflix is reading this, I’m ready to collect my check now).  The reality is, if I had to rely on a brick and mortar video store for my movies, I couldn’t watch half of the volume of titles that I do now. 

It’s a great relationship.  But like any long-term, committed relationship, we realize that no one’s perfect.  It can get on one’s nerves from time to time.  Netflix obviously exists to make money, so their decisions generally reflect concessions to the lowest common denominator.  It doesn’t take a PhD in Economics to deduce that more people will want to watch the Transformers movies than the Apu trilogy.  On the other hand, it doesn’t hurt to dream about the ways that Netflix could be improved:

  1. The rating system is heavily flawed.  The star rating for each film isn’t based on a consensus by armchair or professional critics, but a prediction of how I’m likely to rate it.  How they determine this phantom rating is a bit of a mystery, but it’s presumably based on my past ratings of similar films.  This seems to be grounded in a couple of faulty assumptions: first, they assume that they know how I think, and second, they assume that the films are similar enough to elicit a similar response from me.

  1. Streaming titles are not a replacement for discs.  I know I’ve made this point before, but I think it bears repeating.  We’ve all heard how Netflix is in a hurry to distance itself from disc-based media rentals, and that streaming titles are the wave of the future.   But the truth is, streaming can’t match the content of DVD and Blu-ray.  Let’s assume for a moment that the sound and picture quality is comparable to DVDs and Blu-ray (and it’s not).  You still just have the movie/TV show, without access to the extra features such as commentaries, deleted scenes, picture galleries, or supplemental documentaries.  With streaming, you have the show – and that’s it.  Maybe that doesn’t mean very much to the majority of Netflix users, but there are a lot of film fans out there who would miss having access to these features.

  1. Netflix finished what Blockbuster started, pushing out the neighborhood video stores, and sacrificing quirky selection for price and convenience.  One of the few holdouts is Scarecrow Video, the gold standard for independent video stores, which is maintained by and for film fans.  Of course, they stock the usual crap that everyone else does, but they made a name for themselves by catering to the more adventurous crowd – featuring the sort of stuff that you won’t likely find anywhere else (including Netflix).  Some of these oddball titles languish in my “saved” section of the queue, without any hope of ever being seen.  While it’s not a perfect solution, Netflix could help remedy this oversight somewhat by offering many of the more obscure titles from the major studios’ back catalog, such as the Warner Archive collection or Universal’s Vault Series.

  1. Searching movies can be a pain.  Netflix employs a dumbed-down, all-in-one search box.  It’s okay in a pinch, but what if your search criteria are a little more esoteric?  Would it be too much to ask for an advanced search option that allows customers to search by multiple criteria, such as genre, cinematographer, screenwriter, year, etc… similar to IMDB?   

  1. Lumping films into arbitrary categories.  How does Netflix categorize their films?  It’s hard to take their classifications seriously when you see direct to video schlock like Children of the Corn IV labeled as a “Cult Film,” only to see it repeated in a bunch of sub-categories, just to make it appear as if they have more streaming selections.  Here’s a novel idea: Why don’t they feature some bona fide cult films, such as Rolling Thunder (see item #3) or Ken Russell’s The Devils?


  1. I mostly ignore Netflix's recommendations for me, although now and then they produce a winner like Jerome Bixby's The Man from Earth.

    My biggest complaint is the rating system because it is intentionally geared toward movies getting higher ratings, which of course makes them more interesting to people, which drives more business for Netflix. I'll explain.

    The five rating choices are hated it, didn't like it, liked it, really liked it, and loved it. This leaves out the quite common "it was just okay" reaction. When not given that choice, people will usually say they liked it, because they didn't dislike it. This means movies get more three star ratings, which results in a better than average movie rating for a just average movie.

    As for the streaming vs. disks thing I was hoping to see most people drop the streaming in favor of the disks just to teach Netflix a lesson. In addition to better picture quality and all the extras on the disks, Netflix also provides FAR more choices, including almost all new releases on disk, whereas streaming has almost none.

  2. Wow... Seems like I struck a nerve with this one! I couldn't agree more with your points, especially about the goofy rating system. Something I considered mentioning was the fact that you can't rate with half stars (as I do with this blog). In that case, I would have rated a lot more of my rentals 2 1/2 stars.

    Thanks for reading, Chip!

    1. I agree. My "it was okay" reactions would be 2.5 stars for me. I actually have given a lot of 2 star ratings to those kinds of films just because I don't think they earned three stars.

  3. Great article and I agree with all these points. I'm tired of Netflix making me suffer though a terrible movie because they assumed I would give it 5 stars.

    About the streaming vs discs - lately I've seen movies I've added to my instant queue and the Netflix offers if I would like to add the "Bonus material" disc to my DVD queue which is an improvement.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Alex!

      I appreciate the tip about the bonus material. I just hope they don't abandon disc rentals anytime soon.