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Netflix’s Quest to Reinvent the Preview Screen — and Much More

Digital streaming is slowly but surely changing the look of the TV experience

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

The length of the standard movie trailer, on average, is around two minutes. Todd Yellin can recite that fact from memory because, as a vice president of product innovation at Netflix, it’s pretty much his job to know those things. What he can’t tell you, though, is how the entertainment industry settled on that number.

“Where did we get that time from? Was that figured out in any accurate way?” Yellin asked aloud when I met him for an interview on Wednesday at a New York event celebrating the company’s latest lineup of original content. “Someone took a guess. They did a little marketing research and a little one-way mirror stuff, and then they set that as the convention. Then they did that for many, many decades. But is it right?”

Maybe not. As the man in charge of user experience for one of the internet’s most prominent television and movie companies, it’s Yellin’s job to pick apart and analyze what might seem like trivial data points. This year, he’s laser-focused on how the website’s preview screens for individual movies or shows influence customers. His product team of designers and data scientists have already begun to tackle the issue in typical Netflix fashion: by pulling apart a heaping pile of user behavior data to determine what helps people pick content that they’re likely to enjoy.

“2017 is the year of the preview for the Netflix product,” he said. “It’s about how to best use previews to make it super easy to find something to watch.”

Currently, the preview screen for any given Netflix show is so nondescript that, even if you’ve recently spent five consecutive hours binge-watching, says, Santa Clarita Diet, you might not recall its exact composition. The format varies from device to device, but mostly consists of an image portraying the show or movie, on top of which there is a title, rating, and synopsis. As scholars of the Netflix user experience, Yellin and his team see this part of the website as a way to better understand customer satisfaction. And for years, they wanted to replace that simple image with a quick video preview of the show to see if it would (a) better help people find what they’re looking for, and (b) reduce “abandonment” — when a person quits a show midway through.

Until now, many of the mainstream devices people used to broadcast Netflix didn’t have enough memory to load and play a clip within a few seconds. But in the year 2017, the hardware the company is beholden to has finally caught up to its ambitions. The product team is already testing out the technology to fine-tune a more modern trailer format. To demonstrate the new feature to me, Yellin fired up a dummy Netflix account on the TV across from us, and thumbed over The Crown, Orange Is the New Black, and, finally, Family Guy. We watched as Stewie aimed a ray gun at an adult, and Herbert the Pervert stared through a window at Chris as he undressed.

“A baby with a gun, an old guy ogling at a naked adolescent,” said Yellin. “There you go. That’s Family Guy for you. You get an idea.”

We did. After that 30-second video clip, anyone who might’ve mistaken the show for a wholesome, family-friendly cartoon would know to move on.

Currently, the accounts of approximately 400,000 random users have been previewing content with the help of these 30-second video clips that Netflix designers have created for each show. Initial comparisons to control groups without the feature are promising. According to Yellin, at least a small percentage of people in the experimental group take less time figuring out what they want to watch, stream more, and drop off less. This is just the beginning of the extensive research project he has planned. Netflix’s team has also begun releasing snappy, 30-second online trailers to tease new shows, like Dear White People. For better or worse, they’ve definitely caught people’s attention.

“Over the next year or two you’ll see a lot of experimentation and improvements in this space,” he said. ”And you’ll see it starting to transcend. With traditional TV, you’re used to channel surfing and seeing video autoplay. When you’re on your phone you might not be used to that. So we’ll figure out other devices. What’s the exact video format? Where else can we be playing video to help people decide: is this the right content for them?”

Though perfecting the modern-day online trailer will be a main focus for Netflix this year, Yellin says the company’s flexible format is slowly shifting other longtime norms in television as it hires showrunners producing an increasingly diverse product. More series are ditching pre-episode recaps and reimagining the format of intro credits and standard episode length, because those elements are no longer needed if viewers are watching a cluster of episodes in a single sitting, rather than one episode a week. He cites The OA as a recent example: The sci-fi thriller ran its opening credits 57 minutes into its 71-minute premiere. Not to mention, the series’s episode lengths vary from 31 minutes to over an hour — a far cry from the strict time slots into which weekly cable sitcoms and dramas of yore were forced.

“The actual experience of internet TV kind of evolved the storytelling itself,” Yellin said. “If you read the William Faulkner book As I Lay Dying, a whole chapter of that book is like eight words. Why? Because Faulkner was playing with form. Another chapter could be 52 pages. In TV, a natural break point doesn’t always happen at 44 minutes.”