Netflix’s Todd Yellin: Mobile, laptop viewing is higher in India than globally
New Delhi: Todd Yellin, vice-president of product innovation at streaming service Netflix, knows what people used to say—that Bollywood doesn’t travel to the US, and Hollywood doesn’t travel to India.
“We both know that’s not true. Our originals do very well in India. Stranger Things is important to India. Narcos has done super well in India. We’re about sharing stories around the world,” said Yellin in an interview with Mint via Google Hangouts from California, the company’s headquarters.
Yellin is responsible for leveraging data, algorithms and user interfaces across numerous devices (PCs, TVs, tablets, smartphones, etc) to create a compelling way for Netflix subscribers to find content to watch.
Here, he talks about how downloads have been critical to the company’s India journey, doubling down on technology investment to take on internet challenges, and how personal taste drives consumption for Netflix users around the world. Edited excerpts:
Is India a priority market for Netflix?
India is a really important market. We’ve been quite successful, as you know, in North and South America. We’re rising rapidly in Europe. But in India, you guys love entertainment. I mean, I think you might love entertainment as much or even more than us in the US.
When we talk about priorities, India is really very important. We have more and more people hired in Asia from India. We have more people even in California from India, trying to understand what’s unique about the Indian market in terms of what we could send to India and show to grow this service, both technically and content wise.
How does Netflix plan to work around India’s internet challenges?
To solve problems like how to make it super easy to find something to watch on Netlfix? Or how to take something that’s typically quite frustrating—internet challenges, yes, it drives us all crazy. We are doubling down on a lot of technology (investment) on how to stream something without re-buffering at the lowest bit rates. Its not only a country like India, Netflix is in the Philippines, Malaysia and Brazil. All those countries don’t have great Internet. We know its getting better, but we want to really address those markets.
Any big surprises in the way Indians are consuming Netflix?
A couple of things. I don’t know if this is surprising, but it is different from how the US uses it. Downloading is a much more popular feature in India that it is in the US or Europe.
Of course, a big part of that is internet challenges, but when we launched downloading, we had countries like India top of the mind. While it’s used in the US and in Germany or France, it’s used much more in India. And so that’s important.
I would also say that when it comes to the device mix, if you look globally, around two-thirds of all Netflix viewing is on a TV (screen).
In India, while a lot of our viewing is on TV, mobiles and laptops tend to be a little higher here in India than it is globally.
Have you found the Indian Netflix consumer? What is he/she like?
Right now the Indian Netflix consumer is an early adopter, who is super passionate about entertainment and is comfortable with technology. Like any country, when we start out, early adopters tend to be both entertainment lovers and also tech savvy enough to use and dive into that world at first, of Internet TV.
Since the global expansion, what have you learnt about the Netflix consumer?
We are in all seven continents now as Netflix. We are all around the world. But what we found, in our personalization of trying to find the right content for the right people—it’s not about geography, it’s not about gender, it’s not about age; it’s really about someone’s personal taste.
How has your journey at Netflix been so far?
I have been at Netflix for almost 12 years—I started in January of 2006 when the company was 1/25th the size.
The first year at Netflix, we were fending off heavy competition from Blockbuster (a large chain of video rental stores), as we planned to launch a free video add on service in early 2007.
At the beginning of my Netflix career, all we thought about was DVDs, and now I haven’t thought about those silver discs in many years. Besides the launch of streaming, the biggest turning point happened in January 2016 when we launched in 130 countries at the same time, including India. This was the culmination of a dream held for long to globalize video storytelling and share Internet TV with the world.
Could you relive some of your memories of being a filmmaker and writer in the past?
I have always been passionate about all aspects of films, going back to when I was a kid shooting super 8 movies back in the suburbs of New York City, where I grew up.
I was pushing my younger cousin to do crazy stunts that I could film for another epic action-packed adventure. When I graduated from film school (University of Southern California), I wanted to direct a feature film based on one of the scripts I wrote with a friend.
But I was too broke and had no idea how to raise money to do such a thing. Instead, I shot documentary footage of something that seems quite crazy all of these years later but seemed more sane through the eyes of a hyper-focused budding filmmaker in his mid-twenties.
Based on a tip from an activist organization, I went off into a forbidden Himalayan wilderness area in the Chinese-controlled, a high altitude desert region (6,000 metres high), near Mount Everest.
I heard there was a mountain pass where refugees regularly escaped over the border into Nepal. After much adventure I found a desperate group and followed them on their treacherous journey all the way to Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama’s exile government is located. This was back in 1994.
Over a decade later, I co-wrote and directed an independent feature film (a documentary) in New York (Brother’s Shadow) that can now be streamed on Netflix in the US.