Netflix’s bold move to change TV
IN MAY 2017, the head of product at Netflix Todd Yellin had an ambitious idea he wanted to make happen, so he turned to the producers of his favourite show, Black Mirror.
But he didn't get the response he was hoping for when he pitched it to the creator of the show, Charlie Brooker, and executive producer Annabel Jones. They weren't sold and left the meeting thinking it probably wasn't for them.
The idea was to produce an interactive film - a choose-your-own-adventure episode where the viewer controls the story by making crucial decisions about what the main characters do.
It's not an entirely new idea but a very difficult one to pull off, especially on the global scale of a platform like Netflix.
In a later meeting brainstorming plot ideas for new episodes, Charlie and Annabel's team landed on one they thought actually leant itself quite well to branching narratives, and they began to warm to the concept.
Fast forward to today and the streaming giant has taken its first major step in offering an entirely new experience to its more than 137 million worldwide subscribers. Without much fanfare, that interactive film titled Bandersnatch has quietly become available in your Netflix library. And it's clear the company has high hopes for the innovative format.
The streaming giant wants to recast how we think about internet TV and the possibilities it offers, all the while staying ahead of cashed-up competitors like Apple who are jumping into the streaming market.
"We really want to take storytelling to the next level," Mr Yellin said.
Netflix showcased the episode to a group of journalists at its Los Gatos, California, headquarters in late November. At the event, company executives exuded an air of excitement and confidence about the watershed production but underneath there was a hint of nervousness.
Will it be a game-changing TV revolution or merely something that appeals to a subsection of hardcore viewers?
That is the question Netflix employees in California will be eagerly trying to answer in the coming days as they begin poring over early viewer data. If it turns out to be the former, the company will have a huge headstart in a race toward what it thinks can become a new paradigm in streaming.
THE GAMIFICATION OF TV
The only way you know the Black Mirror episode is something unusual, is the small icon of a star in the top right of the display page in the user interface. Although Netflix is keen to avoid direct comparisons to a video game ("We want to manage expectations") the language they use when talking about the new category is very game-like. You don't simply watch the episode, you play it.
Set in the 1980s, Bandersnatch follows Stefan, a young programmer who has hopes of creating a best-selling, text-based computer game inspired by a choose-your-own-adventure novel that was given to him as a child.
As the viewer, you feel partially responsible for the protagonist because you decide where he goes and what he does.
"Games are becoming increasingly cinematic, and we're looking at what are some of the mechanics that we can borrow that will work in our storytelling environment to be able to add engagement and make you feel ownership in the story," Carla Engelbrecht, director of product innovation at Netflix, said.
For the past three-and-a-half years she has overseen the push into interactive TV at the company. It has already launched four kids' interactive titles but Bandersnatch is the first aimed at mature audiences - and by far the most sophisticated.
"We started with kids because we knew kids love to interact," she said. "It was a really easy place for us to start experimenting, to figure out the technology and start ironing out the kinks of how you tell these types of stories."
And there was no shortage of kinks. From storyboarding, wardrobe and filming schedule to improving buffering controls and building new device compatibility, there was a lot to figure out. In other words, Netflix is banking on this being a hit.
Perhaps more than any other consumer-facing company, the streaming giant sits at the intersection of technology and entertainment and it wants to protect its turf.
"Our job is to think about what can internet TV do that linear TV can't," Ms Engelbrecht said. "This is an interactive device ecosystem … we wanted to explore that."
'A TRILLION PERMUTATIONS'
There are five main endings in the Bandersnatch film with multiple variants of each. The viewer has to make plenty of 50/50 decisions throughout the episode that all tweak the outcome.
While there are core storylines, Netflix says there are more than a trillion unique permutations in the episode, but that doesn't mean there are actually a trillion unique paths or storylines. Rather each choice you make will have an impact on the experience, some more than others. Add them all up and the combinations are immense.
"We built new technology for Bandersnatch that we call state tracking, and it's the notion of remembering your choices throughout the story," Ms Engelbrecht said.
"There can be call-backs in the show based on the decisions you've previously made. Sometimes they're really subtle and they're adding to your ownership of the story and sometimes they're very intense."
For example, if you choose to ignore a character early on, that character won't help you later in the story. Or if you choose to eat a type of breakfast cereal, you will see subtle advertisements for that cereal in the background later on.
All this makes for a lot of work behind the scenes. When you're watching, the show is constantly loading the next few seconds of content as you go.
"The challenge with branching narratives is now we're loading two, or three or four more places and now we're starting to tax the device memory. So we actually increase the risk (of buffering)," Ms Engelbrecht said.
"We get into such permutations that there could be 16 or more videos that could potentially be relevant for your situation," she said.
To get around this, Netflix says it has introduced new technology to make the transitions seamless. I watched the episode on an iPad using the Wi-Fi at Netflix's Los Gatos HQ and the scene transitions were, for the most part, completely smooth. The on-screen action doesn't stop while you make your choice and it never really glitched and only buffered for a split second on one occasion when transitioning into my chosen path.
The format also throws up other interesting challenges, such as the notion of playback controls - in a nonlinear story, what is fast forward?
Netflix says it doesn't know the right answer, so Bandersnatch will roll out with a couple of different versions. There will be a standard version where you can skip ahead and back in 10-second increments and another where users will have access to previous choices. "We're continuing to learn because this is a new frontier where we don't know what the right answer is for our members," Ms Engelbrecht said.
WHAT DEVICES CAN I WATCH IT ON?
Device compatibility is always a time-consuming task for streaming platforms.
"The biggest thing to me was getting it to work on so many devices," Todd Yellin said. "Two-thirds of Netflix hours are on TV and it has to work on so many (different) TVs, not to mention phones and tablets and computers."
Bandersnatch is available across most newer devices, including TVs, game consoles, web browser, and Android and iOS devices running the latest version of the Netflix app.
However it's not yet supported on Chromecast or Apple TV, which will probably disappoint a lot of Australian users.
You would think these platforms would be highly common among Netflix subscribers but Mr Yellin said overall it makes up a small proportion and ultimately, Netflix was in a hurry to get this out.
"We are confident that a vast majority of our members have access to a device that they'll be able to play this on," he said.
FUTURE INTERACTIVE PLANS
The streaming giant will be eagerly awaiting viewer feedback now that Bandersnatch has dropped - but it already has a few bullets in the chamber.
"We are looking into other interactive films for both kids and adults," Mr Yellin said. "There's a couple of things we're debating right now internally that we haven't announced that publicly about future interactive projects."
Netflix has high hopes for the genre and expects it to appeal to creators.
"The moment this comes out we really think it's going to swing the creative doors wide open. People around the world, there's going to be great storytellers who see this as an opportunity and we expect a lot of pitches to start rolling out in 2019," Mr Yellin said.
The company is following in the footsteps of choose your own adventure books, video games and other interactive-style shows, such as HBO's Mosaic (although Australia never got the interactive component).
"We know we are not the first, but we're the first to do it at scale," Ms Engelbrecht said.
"We have created this tool set and we are just so excited to let our creators loose with it to see what kind of stories they can tell."
Netflix deserves credit for trying to innovate in a medium that doesn't lend itself particularly well to dynamic changes. When we watch TV, most of us probably just want to sit on the couch and veg out.
But for those who want it, Netflix has become a lot less chill. And with 360-degree video and virtual reality on the horizon, it's easy to see the immense potential of this type of storytelling.
The author travelled to Los Gatos, California, as a guest of Netflix