Netflix tweak lets families split up viewing profiles

The video-streaming site reintroduces a feature letting households individualize their viewing habits on the site, so parents don't get recommendations for "Snow White" and kids don't get suggestions to watch "Se7en."

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Joan E. Solsman
3 min read
A screenshot of Netflix's profiles feature
Netflix revives the option of keeping users' viewing habits separate on the same account, called profiles. Netflix

Netflix launched a feature on Thursday to keep your viewing persona separate from your sports-doc-streaming husband, your romcom-loving girlfriend, your "My Little Pony" fan of a daughter, or your zombie-obsessed brother.

If you're feeling a sense of deja vu, Netflix once had an identical feature, and for some longtime subscribers, it still does in a way. For years, subscribers could separate their DVD-rental queues by household user. Netflix planned the end of profiles in 2008, much to the chagrin of some subscribers. At the time, the company was still predominantly a DVD service, having launched its streaming venture just the previous year, and profiles never made it over to the streaming side of the site. Though it reversed its decision to eliminate profiles because of the outcry, Netflix quietly killed the earlier profiles feature for new customers in 2010.

Like its predecessor, the new profiles allows users to create separate identities for different members on the same account. For all Netflix's devotion to its recommendation algorithms -- it once held a contest with a $1 million prize to any person or team who could improve its predictive power by a certain amount -- those recommendations can be undermined by people in the same household having divergent tastes.

And most people choose what they watch based on what Netflix recommends. Last month, the company said more than three-quarters of the hours streamed come from personalized suggestions generated by its algorithms.

The aim of the newly revised profiles is to sharpen the effect of the recommendations Netflix makes. That matters to Netflix because the better it recommends movies, the more likely people are to watch them. And "the more people watch, the more they retain" the service, Chief Executive Reed Hastings said last year.

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Watch this: Set up and manage Netflix profiles
Neil Hunt, Netflix's chief product officer, told CNET that the original profiles feature was too complicated of a product, and the company was wary of doing the same thing again.
A PS3 screenshot of profiles icons
Profiles icons Netflix

"With a feature like profiles where consumers invest a lot, you can't take it away," he said. "We didn't want to introduce something that we might have to change or take away."

Netflix designed profiles to be simple, eschewing ideas like a password protection. It also said the idea wasn't related to uncovering accounting sharing, when people cooperatively pool an account even if they don't live in the same household.

"Our intent is to make the family experience great, we've not been too worried with the phenomenon of account sharing," Hunt said.

The feature, which allows up to five profiles, is rolling out to Netflix globally on Thursday and will be available to all member within two weeks.

New members can set up profiles while signing up for Netflix, and existing members can create additional profiles at any time on the Netflix Web site or PlayStation 3. Profiles are accessible on most devices that play Netflix, including the Web site, PS3, Xbox 360 and iOS devices like iPhone and Apple TV, as well as most smart TVs. Netflix will be adding more devices in the coming months.