When Netflix started allowing people to stream movies over the internet, instead of making them wait for the company to mail them a DVD, it was transformational. Sure, Netflix wasn't technically the first service to do this--Amazon and Apple both offered the ability to download videos to your computer around the same time. There was also a little upstart that had recently launched called YouTube.
The difference was, Netflix was already the place you went to rent movies if you didn't feel like leaving your house to drive to Blockbuster. It was top of mind for consumers looking for entertainment. At one point, Netflix's DVD catalog was estimated to include more than 100,000 titles. That's a lot of entertainment.
As a result, the company took an early and definitive lead in the streaming wars, one on which it has never let up. At one point, Netflix was responsible for more than 20 percent of all internet traffic. Today, it's still around 11 percent, surpassed only by YouTube as people stay home during the Covid-19 pandemic.
When Netflix announced its fourth-quarter earnings on Tuesday, it revealed that it had its most successful year ever, at least in terms of new subscribers. That put its current number at around 204 million subscribers.
That's impressive, but ever since the moment Netflix first launched its streaming video on demand (SVOD) service, there's been one major problem--finding something to watch.
In some ways, it's kind of remarkable that a company that could figure out how to persuade almost all of the major studios to license their content, build apps for every computer platform you can imagine, and stream endless amounts of content in HD couldn't figure out how to make it easier to actually find a TV show or movie worth watching.
To be fair, it's not just Netflix. Streaming video services have spent a lot of time building enormous vast content libraries that offer a little bit of something for everyone. Disney has superheroes, Jedi's, and all of your childhood favorites. Netflix has high-quality, sometimes quirky original content, along with a huge collection of licensed films and TV shows. HBO Max has Wonder Woman and most of the iconic WarnerMedia library.
Deciding which of those things to watch on any given night is hard enough. Navigating the myriad apps on your TV or streaming box or iPhone is another thing altogether.
Netflix thinks it finally has a solution.
In the company's shareholder letter, released this week, it said it planned to roll out its "Shuffle Play" feature, which it has been testing worldwide since August. According to Netflix, the idea behind the feature is to "make it easier for members to find something to watch." Shuffle Play serves up movies or TV shows similar to what you've already watched, or within genres you frequently view. It will also select from shows you've saved in "My List."
The purpose is to get people to watch more content by getting them into something more quickly, instead of spending a half-hour scrolling through menus to find something only to give up and open Disney+ to binge-watch The Mandalorian. And, make no mistake, that's exactly what Netflix wants to avoid.
Go through that enough times and there's an increasingly likely chance that you'll start asking yourself if Netflix is really worth it, or if you can live with only the four other streaming services you've subscribed to. That's why it's such a big deal that Netflix is working on solving what is a problem not only for its users, but for its business as well.
I'm not usually a fan of algorithms deciding what I should watch or pay attention to, but if it works, and if it means I can spend less time staring at endless screens of movies I've never heard of and have no idea if I'd be interested in, I'm all for it. That's exactly what Netflix is counting on.