For Todd Yellin, global product head of Netflix, the future of entertainment is about telling stories better and telling them any way one wants to. But when he raised the idea of interactive TV, it wasn’t met with a ‘wow’. Yellin went to meet his favourite storyteller, Charlie Brooker, the creator of Netflix’s hit show Black Mirror. He pitched the idea of the viewer making choices for the character on a show to Brooker and his partner Annabel Jones in London. “I had planted the seed of an idea. A few months later, I got a call and it was a great story," he says. That led to Bandersnatch, Netflix’s hugely popular interactive show. Netflix has disrupted television, video streaming, Hollywood, and pushing the envelope with storytelling as a constant. Yellin, who is part of the leadership team at Netflix, talks about the culture of innovation, storytelling and the future of television viewing.
How does Netflix think about innovation? How have you internalized this as company process?
Whenever new employees come to Netflix, we do a quarterly meeting. All new employees get into a big auditorium and the different executives present. I describe the technology in Netflix. Then I get to a slide with a cartoon of a person facing down in the dirt. I point to it and say, ‘If you’re not in this position during your Netflix career at least once, then you’ve failed, because you want to lean so far forward trying new things that occasionally you are going to trip over and fall on your face.’ If you try different things and you fall down that’s a learning experience and that’s how you innovate.
Bandersnatch pushed the envelope on innovation. Where do you go from here in terms of interactive content?
It succeeded creatively. It got great reviews. But most importantly, it was very popular. So now the door is wide open. But we don’t want the next interactive to be all about futuristic science fiction. We should try wacky comedy interactive. We should try horror interactive. The interactive story I want to see is about a 16-year-old high school girl asked out by two guys—the star of the cricket team and the bookish guy who is always studying. She has to decide who to go out with and you pick. I think my 15-year-old daughter and many 15-year-olds and 40-year-olds would love that story.
So, you don’t use analytics to guide your story telling?
No, we are not using analytics to decide how to tell the story. We use technology to expand the story. I will give you an example. Internet TV creates many opportunities. If you look at traditional linear TV, say, between 8 o’clock and 9, you need some advertising.
So, we need an exciting thing to happen at the end of the eight minutes so they come back after the commercial and keep watching. You need the story to suit the slot. If you are making a movie, it should be two hours long. These are old business models that are being blown apart with technology. We don’t have to tell an hour and half story in a movie theatre. We don’t have to tell it in exactly an hour with commercial breaks. If you have an idea and the story should be six hours, tell it in six hours. This is the new way. I want to tell the story the way it is best told. Netflix and others in the internet TV space allow for that flexibility just to tell brilliant stories.
Why would a serious content company like Netflix get into content that seems to border on the lines of video gaming like interactive content?
It’s not like Netflix is making only a certain kind of content for certain kind of people. We are trying to make stuff that you can relax and watch when you come home from work or school, something really silly or really serious. We want both. Internet TV not only allows for interactivity but also, more importantly, it allows for a virtual library that’s always there for you. You can watch this incredible treasure trove of content anytime—drama, comedy, political documentary, science, whatever you want.
You don’t like the word episodes and believe a story should be told as it is. Netflix ushered in binge-watching. But now, companies doing instant videos are most valued unicorns. Can we expect divergence in these two thought processes as we talk about the future of content consumption?
It depends on the story and what’s the best way to tell it. As a consumer, am I in the mood and do I have the time to watch a five-minute story? Or do I want to settle in and watch three hours tonight.
Netflix has a new show—Love, Death and Robots. We got some of the best animators from around the world. We want the best stories that everyone in the world can watch everywhere at the same time. So with Love, Death and Robots, some of the stories are five minutes long and some are 14 or 15 minutes long. They are different lengths depending on how they want to tell that story. So, we are experimenting shorter form. But boy! We’re not going to give up the longer form. We’re going to still make movies. But maybe they’ll be two and a half hours long. And if it gets even longer, we will form chapter breaks and you could can call them a series, or what you want.
Tell us about this culture of experimentation at Netflix? Do you have test groups with which you conduct these experiments?
It’s a culture of trying things and being willing to fall on your face. How do we improve content discovery? Should we use a different video trailer format? Trailers are traditionally two minutes long. What if we tested a 30-second trailer? We did something called Smart Downloads and randomly selected 100,000 people to get these Smart Downloads, and another 100,000 were selected for the usual experience. We watched these two groups and found the most important thing for Netflix from metrics. Retention! You want to stick around month to month. That one worked, so we launched that.
What can a country like ours do to up the game in the future of entertainment?
The crime is that India has one of the top creative communities in the world but it doesn’t play outside of India. Me, as this white dude living in California, I am not presented Indian content. But now with Internet TV, I am. More borders are going to be smashed. Language technology and machine learning algorithms will get better at translating, dubbing making it clear. Personalization will get a lot better in the next five years where you won’t have to spent 25 minutes browsing for what you want to watch. Right up there will be auto play and it is something you are going to love. In the next five or 10 years, the idea of difference between movies and TV series will start going away.