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19 May 2022

Netflix live project hinges on bridging big screen interactivity gap

Without live sports, Netflix’s rumored foray into live streaming will be a damp squib. Innovating around engaging features might give Netflix an edge when it comes to wading late into the live sandbox, but with the streaming platform’s lean-back and chill reputation, will anyone take notice?

As reports stand, courtesy of a Deadline exclusive out this week, Netflix is betting on live entertainment of the talent show variety to spearhead another diversification venture, following the streaming company’s recent U-turn on advertising.

What will be critical to anything Netflix does with live streaming is audience interactivity. Initial plans on the table of the small internal team working on live streaming include allowing viewers to vote on dance shows, for example.

Deadline notes that Netflix also has a roadmap for airing live comedy shows, for which it is considering “a few seconds delay in case things get saucy” – a dead line if ever we read one.

Anyone who has experienced the Netflix title Black Mirror: Bandersnatch will know exactly what we’re talking about when it comes to interactive experiences – where viewers play God by guiding characters down numerous plot holes leading to several possible different endings.

The beauty of this is that you keep going back for more, out of curiosity more than anything, to discover what twist lies around the next corner.

However, this particular title split plaudits straight down the middle of love and hate – and Netflix might therefore be reluctant to revisit this user-guided format.

The obvious caveat is that this is strictly an on-demand experience. Replicating an experience like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch in a live environment is technically impossible, but recreating it is not. Just ask the folk behind the BBC’s Inside No. 9 who did a frighteningly clever job of creating an immersive live linear TV experience without viewers even having to lift a finger – and making it look too easy in the process.

User-driven content isn’t anything new. Games and short movies where you choose your own endings have been around on the internet for yonks, but bringing audience interaction to the TV screen is a technical hurdle that the world’s best video minds are still trying to figure out.

The big downside of Netflix’s interactive Black Mirror experience is that it was initially a browser-based title for PCs. Mobile app support followed, then select smart TVs and connected TV devices like newer Roku models came next – but this still alienated a sizable wedge of its audience.

If Netflix can figure out a way to bring even a small element of interactivity to anything it does with live streaming, focusing on smart TVs and connected TVs, only then will the company have an edge.

This dovetails with a theme we have tracked closely over the past two or three years, as the demand for interactive video experiences exploded during the pandemic.

Covid cultivated co-viewing cultures on streaming platforms the world over, allowing users to invite members into a video stream to socialize, for live streams or on-demand bingeing, but with particular popularity for live sports.

The problem is that these watch parties and co-viewing features are chiefly mobile and browser-based experiences. To create a watch party on the main TV screen still requires two devices – the TV set for the video itself, plus a mobile/web device for video/text chat (as well as for controlling playback on the big screen).

This makes the rollout of such features on TVs complex in terms of UX, compared with a mobile/web UX where both the playback and video/text chat are on the same device.

Interactive features are transitioning to the big screen, gradually, such as BT Sport’s Watch Together experience which is available on Apple TV, with an SDK delivered by social viewing developer Sceenic. But even this is only possible by pairing your iPhone with your Apple TV device, so that brings us back to square one.

The bottom line is that it’s much easier to go live with interactive experiences on mobile, and we just can’t see how Netflix will crack this conundrum without falling back on mobile. It will have to attack this on a device-by-device basis, hopefully starting by working with connected TV manufacturers rather than mobile apps.

If HBO Max, for instance, decided it wanted to wade into live streaming, alarm bells would be ringing at the Faultline news desk from an infrastructure standpoint. With Netflix, we cannot say the same concerns are true.

While all the major US streaming platforms including Netflix rely heavily on AWS cloud infrastructure, for almost all cloud processing and storage requirements, Netflix is a different breed – as a pioneer of technology as well as content.

Ever since its 2007 streaming breakthrough which saw the first-generation media processing and encoding platform go live, Netflix has built a reputation for fierce in-house technology developments, snubbing best of breed technology suppliers (including, possibly, AWS itself) to build both platform and application infrastructure from the ground up.

The company is famous for its in-house CDN, encoding, analytics, and recommendations engine, to name a few components – all of which will take some tweaking to succeed in the pivot from on-demand to live.

It could be significant that Netflix’s Open Connect CDN technology has recently benefited from a new microservices-esque ecosystem called Cosmos, a cloud platform combining microservices with asynchronous workflows and serverless functions, which is behind the company’s largest ever workload migration effort.

With cloud-native technologies and microservices, the private CDN has been unleashed into a container-based ecosystem with orchestration – capable of scaling instantly and caching instinctively depending on traffic, anticipating peaks, with central monitoring and analytics systems.

It can also offload resources onto public cloud infrastructure if the capacity of private cloud is not sufficient, allowing the orchestrator to launch additional instances. Of course, while caching can be used for live, this is better suited for VoD.

Netflix is only where it is today after doing away with hierarchical control, and its commitment to Cosmos is an example of how fusing infrastructure and media algorithm developer teams together can realize a vision that would not be possible in your typical top-down engineering environment.

We are not saying Netflix will succeed with live. Its leaked preliminary plans are underwhelming to say the least, from a content perspective, but all we know is that it has the talent, technology and cash potential to execute something special.