Burying the long tail on Netflix

On slow nights I’ll often watch something on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime. There’s many great films and TV shows available; if you’ve had access to all three services over the last year you could have caught The Witch, Under the Skin, The Handmaiden, and OJ: Made In America. But most content is hard to find, buried under poor suggestion algorithms and even worse user interfaces. Given how our watching habits are consolidating around streaming, that’s a big problem.

Let’s focus on Netflix: the service spent $6 billion on original content in 2017, with plans to release 80 original films this year. However, that rapid pace becomes an undigestible blur when any single title’s discoverability is so limited. Take Macon Blair’s I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore (IDFAHITWA). The Netflix exclusive won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance and got decent reviews elsewhere. Genre-wise, its off-kilter sensibilities are a match for what I’ve seen elsewhere on the service. Or The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected); it’s one of Noah Baumbach’s best films in years, and I watched his earlier feature Frances Ha on Netflix. But browsing through the Netflix app on my Apple TV, IDFAHITWA and Meyerowitz completely flew under my radar.

The problems start with Netflix’s interface. Options on the home page take up less than half the screen, giving a cramped browsing experience. Categories don’t expand beyond a single row which forces users to swipe through titles one at a time.

Netflix’s suggestions aren’t much help either, favoring either Netflix exclusives or otherwise well-known selections. That might initially help IDFAHITWA and Meyerowitz given their exclusive status. Unfortunately, since Netflix adds so much content, most titles drop off the home page pretty quickly. IDFAHITWA lasted for what felt like a day. Meyerowitz, with its bigger star power (Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller), ran for about a week before Netflix dumped it. And search has limited scope. Only movie titles and actor names are reliable search criteria. There’s no “fuzzy” logic; a slight misspell won’t generate results.

Adding to the confusion, Netflix rarely makes it clear when they add or remove titles. They’ll offer a “new release” queue, but it’s mostly exclusives and obvious hits, even if this “new” content is months old. This makes third party sites like (Letterboxd, Instantwatcher, and NYT Watching) a necessity for content discovery.

Netflix’s weaknesses extend to marketing as well. It’s effectively an old-school premium cable model: push the latest exclusives to hook customers on a few titles that can sustain a subscription. Quantity prevails over quality. If a new series or movie fails, fire off another, market, and hope for the best.

Part of me understands this “one size fits all” approach when Netflix positions itself as the future of media. Drawing connections to huge networks like NBC or HBO make the service digestible for investors. Once you’re a paid subscriber though, it doesn’t have to be this way. Netflix isn’t fighting against limited ad space and network blocks, nor it is some scrappy startup. As a huge tech company, they have sizable design and engineering talent. They can have the proverbial cake and eat it too, serving up different film and TV recommendations for very different audiences.

Likewise, Netflix should refresh its UI to improve discoverability and search for long tail content. I’d bet internal analytics would make the service gun shy to change its defaults, but there’s probably a way to add in more customization for power users.

Recent quality control concerns aside – The Cloverfield Paradox and Bright are dreadful – Netflix has some great TV and film content. The best can rival what is in cinemas or on premium cable. And the streaming service deserves credit for bringing smaller, more challenging releases to a big audience. But considering its market share and tech talent, Netflix has a long way to go. We should expect more.