Five ways Netflix still needs to improve itself

Netflix's new pricing plan is problematic to some, but there are other issues with Netflix, too. Fix these, and maybe we'd pay more money.

No, these aren't my top picks.
No, these aren't my top picks. Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

While everyone's been in an uproar about Netflix pricing, few are discussing Netflix itself--and what's still broken about it. Netflix needs its pricing model problems fixed , but Netflix also could use some improvements to how its service works, too--particularly on mobile devices.

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As a service, Netflix is at a crossroads. Is it streaming? Is it a DVD delivery service? Is it best as both? For myself, even though I subscribe to the DVD/streaming combo plan, I find myself rarely playing the DVDs I order. They sit on a shelf and collect dust. That's because I'm not a big living-room TV watcher: I cut the cable cord over a year and a half ago, and prefer to use my iPad, iPhone, or laptop to easily stream video. So, to me, Netflix is a streaming-video service.

Therefore, let me address Netflix's faults on those terms: as a streaming-video entertainment service. While we're venting our frustrations over paying more for what Netflix offers, there's no better time to cast an eye on what still doesn't work well on Netflix to begin with. Fix what's broken with Netflix, and maybe, if the service improves, it just might be worth a higher subscription price after all.

Netflix should hardly rest on its laurels, though: with new streaming-video and online rental services cropping up everywhere and cable channels and providers making ever-more-compelling video-streaming apps (Time Warner, Cablevision, and HBO Go to name a few), the landscape will only get rougher. It's time to shore up and solve some issues, before someone else does.

  1. Fix search, browsing, and discoverability. The dumbed-down UI that you'll find on Netflix's iPad, video game console, and smartphone apps has almost none of the flexibility (or DVD management) you'll find on Netflix's Web site. Browsing by title, which is how search is accomplished on Netflix's apps currently, is absurd. Not only do we need to add director, cast, and other talent search modes, but the whole site should feel more like IMDb--or, like the recently launched Fanhattan . If you like a director, you need to see all of his or her work that's on Netflix. That's what it's like on the browser side, but that part's painfully invisible on tablets, smartphones, consoles, and other apps. Instead, we're given endless groupings of suggested genre picks based on what we've already seen: mind-bending disturbing comedies. Family animated TV. Related suggestions are nice to have, but they're no substitute for good search. Searching by rating would also be helpful, to sift through the genre chaff (no offense, but I don't care about "Starship Troopers 3").

  2. Get social. I don't need to necessarily share or browse what I'm watching on Netflix with my friends, but knowing what's hot or most viewed is a fun way to get in on the current zeitgeist. While Netflix on the Xbox 360 does have some social element for telling others what you're watching, Netflix should offer better community/fan features within its service. Better social discovery is part of the equation. There should be most viewed/most popular lists for instant streaming titles; Apple uses it to great success in the App Store for apps, as does Amazon with books.

  3. Help us follow what we want to watch, and tell us when it's here. I love David Lynch, and I have no idea when "Dune" disappeared off Instant Streaming. I barely knew when "Twin Peaks" arrived. Users should be able to "follow" their favorite artists and have Netflix tell them when new content they're interested in is available, or when certain content might be flagged to expire, so we actually make sure to set aside time to watch it. Netflix has finally clumped TV seasons into single show pages, but it needs to go further. Better notification for when new TV seasons or episodes arrive, and a method of "subscribing" to shows you like the most, would make the experience feel more welcoming. My Watch Instantly list has 400 titles and is far too long--it needs smarter organization.

  4. Treat Netflix like a network, not a service. When Netflix's business was sending DVDs by mail, it was a service. Times have changed: the Netflix streaming experience and all the content it licenses makes it more of a network, a living, breathing content provider on the order of Hulu Plus and HBO Go. Unlike those apps, however, Netflix feels stillborn on its home page. There are few flashy notifications letting us know of hot new shows or upcoming movies. Netflix is spending big money for content like "Mad Men," "Star Trek" episodes, and David Fincher's exclusive TV series; why not share that excitement with customers? Give us a heads-up of what's coming and what's most exciting that doesn't feel like a bunch of thumbnails of DVD boxes. I love how HBO Go splashes what's new and noteworthy the moment the app is launched. Who doesn't like a good heads-up on what's new? While Netflix does have "New Movies" and "New TV" panes that greet you on the main page, horrible direct-to-disc movies are sprinkled amid AAA films with no regard to quality or popularity.

  5. Let DVDs fix your content holes. Actually, Netflix was already doing a great job of this with its aggressively priced "hybrid" DVD/streaming plans: each half offered a value the other half lacked. Streaming is instant and watch-anywhere, but has gaps in its library; meanwhile, Netflix's DVD library is incredibly deep, but mail service is slow. DVD and Instant Streaming plans have now been split into separate plans, forcing customers to choose or pony up. How about letting users have one DVD "security blanket" rental a month to get that one movie or TV show that's not available for streaming for an extra dollar or two a month? I rarely return my DVDs (I've had a "Tim and Eric" disc sitting on my shelf for months), but the comfort factor of knowing a rental could patch Netflix's content holes makes me stay a subscriber.

 

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