The launch of American streaming service Netflix down under last week marked the third high-profile SVOD platform to go live in almost as many months. Australians can now stream entire catalogues of diverse television and film titles straight to any number of screen devices. That’s approximately 3,766 more titles than they could view anywhere, legally, three months ago. (Estimated to be, Netflix AU: 1,326 titles, Stan: 1,250 titles, Presto Entertainment: 1,200 titles).
Yet Netflix now faces a unique competition with itself between its US and Australian counterparts, where an estimated 200,000 Australians already access the US catalogue through gateway VPNs. My guess is users won’t be very enticed to switch in order to have approximately an 1/8th of the choice of catalogue titles, so it will be interesting to see how Netflix attempts manage this.
Industry practitioners are cursing the product launch saying, “Netflix is not our friend”, as content producers. For a national audience of only 23 million, fragmentation across media delivery platforms is suddenly more real than ever, in an increasingly crowded domestic market. Alas, a producer can always count on one constant: the default skepticism of one’s own news media to be reminded of the failings of our films – even when they’re performing well.
So debate continues over the decimating impacts subscription streaming services, such as Fairfax & Nine’s Stan and Foxtel & Seven’s revamped Presto, are to have on free-to-air broadcasters. But nobody will lose like Foxtel – once King of pay-TV land with virtually no competition. House of Cards, Netflix US’s first original series was formerly broadcast for Australians on Foxtel but have since had their rights snatched back by the streaming service in order to offer it themselves in Australia. HBO’s Game of Thrones remains the only real draw to Foxtel who will ‘simulcast’ new Season 5 episodes at the same time they air in the US. Yet besides increasing their sport coverage and lowering the price of it, they only have these fronts to push (‘Home of Thrones’, ‘Get closer to the action’) as subscribers surely question jumping ship to (multiple) VOD services, with exclusivity of content deciding the winner.
The future of screen entertainment just evolved! That much is inarguable; soon enough all content will be delivered online and on-demand – ready when audiences want it, a post-broadcast era. But an interesting opportunity for differentiation now exists among these competing platforms, besides content. Everybody’s talking about (S)VOD, but they aren’t discussing the emerging form that comes along with it – the database, as symbolic form. Usability, findability and curation are hereby baptised the buzzwords of 2015.
I’m talking about the user experience. With audiences spoiled by more hours of content than hours of life left – how does one effectively navigate such content troves?
Otherwise, how do service providers organise as much content? How do they personalise it, how do they allow the user to curate it? Who will provide the most compelling user experience? Well, databases aren’t entirely devoid of narrative either, though they are distinct from it.
Manovich describes how in ye olde, after the novel, cinema privileged narrative as the key form of cultural expression. Now a computer age (or perhaps even more relevantly, an internet age) introduces the database; new media objects that do not tell stories nor contain beginnings or ends but exist as collections of individual items. Database as form. He asks:
'What is the relationship between database and another form that has traditionally dominated human culture - narrative?'
Manovich is talking exactly about the affordances of new media, like SVOD, which appear as computerised collections of items on which users can view, navigate and search. In ‘99 he was talking about popular multimedia encyclopedias (think Wikipedia or Encyclopedia Britannica on CD-ROM) or the navigation of DVD menus...but never have his ideas been more relevant than in the competitive zone of SVOD in Australia, now.
The important point in all of this, is that users of new media now experience database-like engagement at far beyond basic levels, because while they can perform various operations like view, navigate and search, now they also expect to curate, personalise and socialise through it.
UI: The User Interface
Take Netflix to start. Upon signing up, the user names each individual user of the account, then selects at least three film or TV titles they like from a shortlist of options. From this, the interface launched is based on predictive algorithms to generate ‘suggestions’ according to the tastes of each user, when their profile is activated. On a laptop the interface is premised by displaying categorised ‘rows’ according to genre, taste, popularity, critical acclaim and further recommendations generated via linked social media accounts (information based on friends’ viewing habits – creepy! Though you can opt out of sharing or connecting this information). You can always just ‘search’ for a known title, or personalise further by rating a list of titles that specify your tastes. A ‘My List’ feature allows you to save titles for later while casually browsing, but for the most part, the more you watch and rate shows, the more specific the recommendations become in ‘row’ form. Away from the foundation of the ‘suggestion’, you can take your time exploring the catalogue via a headlining ‘Browse’ link which has a dropdown genre menu and consequently leads to an endless page of thumbnails for each subgenre.
To view a show, you simply click a thumbnail and it launches the media player immediately, with options to navigate seasons and episodes via the native ‘pause/play’ toolbar. Pretty bloody clean.
Stan asks for more demographic information such as gender and age upon signing. Surprisingly, Stan has the exact same ‘My List’ function as Netflix, and also organises titles by thumbnails in ‘row’ form, though only according to genre. Different, is that at least half the page features a huge banner rotating hot-button titles, like ‘Transparent’ and ‘Better Call Saul’, pushing their main attractions. The Netflix ‘Browse’ link is replaced by differentiated ‘TV’ and ‘Movies’ drop down genre menus. Within selected genres is the same big feature banner rotating major and popular titles with subgenre ‘rows’ of thumbnails below. All in all, very similar to Netflix with the same ‘synopsis on hover’ mouse trick, and add to ‘My List’ capability. It’s Netflix without social crossover, far less suggestive capability, though I would say slightly more aesthetically pleasing in charcoal & blue...
To view a show, you select by clicking on the thumbnail which opens a new webpage, allowing you to select seasons and episodes that are in list form below if you scroll (not built-in like Netflix).
Presto was clunkier in that it seemed simply, less seamless than the others. The interface continues the major feature banner of Stan taking up most screen space, with thumbnail titles organised again in categorised ‘rows’ below. Fewer titles were displayed at a time in each row creating more ‘empty space’ in the appearance of the interface, and rows didn’t flow as well with mouse interaction requiring ‘clicks’ rather than ‘hover’ to scroll. Rows are organised according to general collections, not genre, like ‘Trending’, ‘Holiday Playlists 4 Teens’ or ‘Ultimate LOL TV’ – an unobvious but more curatorial approach than Stan. There appears to be no personalisation however, and what looks like, no ability to do so. It does have its own social community though...for tech support.
To view a show, you select by clicking on the thumbnail that, like Stan opens a new webpage, but are then prompted to choose season and episodes from an awkward side panel that must be ‘existed’ to disappear, i.e It doesn’t disappear by hovering away. Netflix is slightly more classy here by building these menus into their control bar where ‘pause/play’ functions live.
What Foxtel subscribers will miss is how they are used to finding their content. Instead of tuning into a channel knowing what ‘kind’ of shows to expect from it, then letting it run for a few hours stumbling into new material along the way – users will now have to actively seek material they think they’ll like, to a degree. Customers have well entrenched viewing habits, and have raved how the network “organises their entire day” this way, and further by programming shows to the ‘IQ’ service which records and saves faves for later that would otherwise be missed on broadcast. This effectively creates a personal trove of shows that can be recalled at any time by turning on the TV, like a hard drive.
In the hunt for relevant information it is said that web users behave like wild beasts in the jungle. ‘Information foraging’ is not unlike how a lion stalks its prey, or a spider entraps his. In this analogy, Foxtel subscribers are like a spider and less active, allowing content to make its way to them where SVOD users are otherwise particularly active in narrowing the field, so the chances of a successful strike are increased every time they try.
UX: User Experience > What this all means for ‘findability’
‘Findability’ is the key differentiator here and only one of the above platforms really properly addresses this. ‘Ambient findability’ is the process of filtering streams of complex information to pull out only what you want and consequently, the business of UX designers whose broad responsibility is to ensure that a product logically flows from one step to the next. While these three SVOD platforms appear to example very similar ‘looking’ approaches to the SVOD UI’s – their ability to connect audiences with content that is meaningful to the individual differs enormously.
Netflix is the only platform that engages a constant weeding of its own offerings trimmed to the user’s desires. The more information Netflix gathers about a user’s taste, through their social engagement, viewing, rating (and repeating this) – the more tailored ‘suggestions’ become. In this way, users are exposed to only small corners of the entire catalogue available, but are ultimately the one to seek and push play.
But, with subscriptions to most SVOD platforms priced around $10 per month producers are questioning the trickle down to creators after providers take technical and operation costs for content acquisition and margin. That's a loaded statement.