Netflix Watch Now: Missing too much popular content

Netflix has made its Watch Now instant streaming feature easier to use, but it's still lacks the overwhelming majority of the service's popular movies and TV shows.

John Falcone Senior Editorial Director, Shopping
John P. Falcone is the senior director of commerce content at CNET, where he coordinates coverage of the site's buying recommendations alongside the CNET Advice team (where he previously headed the consumer electronics reviews section). He's been a CNET editor since 2003.
Expertise Over 20 years experience in electronics and gadget reviews and analysis, and consumer shopping advice Credentials
  • Self-taught tinkerer, informal IT and gadget consultant to friends and family (with several self-built gaming PCs under his belt)
John Falcone
3 min read
Netflix screenshot
March of the Penguins: the only movie in Netflix's top 100 that you can stream CNET Networks

The "Watch Now" feature on Netflix is a great idea: instant access to thousands of movies and TV shows, available for instant streaming to your browser at the touch of a button. There's just one big problem: despite an advertised library of over 8,000 titles, very few of them seem to be movies or TV shows that I want to watch.

Out of 41 titles currently in my queue, only 4--The King of Marvin Gardens, Das Boot, The Good German, and Pickup of South Street--are available to be streamed. OK, fine--my taste for older movies is probably throwing things off. Surely plenty of newer, more popular movies are available to be streamed, right?

Wrong. A quick survey of the site's top 100 list (and the top 25 list for each genre) reveals that little more than 5 percent of the site's most popular movies and TV shows are available for streaming. For instance, March of the Penguins is the only movie in the top 100 that's available for streaming (and it's also one of the 4 streamable documentaries). Meanwhile, several key genres have no streaming titles in the top 25, including action, children, comedy, drama, horror, musicals, romance, sci-fi, and thrillers.

Percentage of Watch Now selections available from top Netflix titles

Given the on-the-fly nature of such most popular lists, these numbers will no doubt fluctuate a bit. And Netflix has definitely been building up the Watch Now library--there is, believe it or not, a better selection than there was a few months earlier. But it seems clear that the Watch Now library is going to remain woefully underpopulated for the near future--and it's unclear how much Netflix can do about it.

Unlike buying bulk orders of DVDs for its disc-by-mail business, the Watch Now queue is determined by the deals it can cut with studios. And while those same studios will let the likes of Apple and Vudu offer a decent selection of download-to-own movies on their respective streaming boxes--often available the same day as the DVD release--they seem far less willing to negotiate deals that will allow most services (with the possible exception of cable video-on-demand) day-and-date streaming rentals on a pay-per-view basis.

Netflix Watch Now is currently only available to subscribers on Windows PCs using Internet Explorer. The company has hinted that the service will be coming to Macs by the end of 2008. Indeed, a recent demo of Microsoft's Silverlight technology showed that--theoretically, anyway--the company could deliver high-quality on-demand video streams to Macs--using the Firefox browser, no less!--replete with a variety of social networking and interactivity that bests current DVD offerings. And Netflix has also confirmed that four hardware partners (one of which is LG) are scheduled to release a "Netflix box" by year's end, which will allow the Watch Now library to be viewed directly on your TV--no computer necessary. But until Netflix is able to negotiate deals for a wider range of compelling content--something far better than the five percent of its most popular titles that it's currently offering--the Watch Now feature will remain more a gimmick than a compelling service.

What do you think: do you enjoy the offerings on the Netflix Watch Now feature? Or do you opt for competing offerings such as Hulu, iTunes, CinemaNow, or Vongo?