Meeting Neil Hunt

neil-hunt-regan-cunliffeLast month I had the pleasure of spending a bit of time with the team from Netflix, including Neil Hunt, their Chief Product Officer, who were in New Zealand to do interviews and attending a screening of two of their new original shows Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Bloodline. As well as interviewing him about the service and dining with the team after the event, I extended an invitation to Neil to join us at our home for a bit of Kiwi hospitality during his extended stay in the country.

As someone who first used Netflix in 2009 during one of our visits to the US, and have keenly followed developments over the years, hanging out with one of the people responsible for what is quite possibly the biggest revolution in television history was inspiring.

Neil’s role at Netflix has seen him oversee the spend of $1.5M a day in 2014 developing the technology behind the world’s leading streaming video service, particularly their recommendation engine.

One of the things that has fascinated me about SVOD services is that the more time people spending viewing advertising free content online, the less time is being spent in front of traditional broadcasters and their advertising. For companies like Netflix, taking a subscriber’s money at the start of the month is cash in the bank whether or not they consume anything. Time on site and time spent viewing isn’t necessarily of the same importance as it is for broadcasters but by developing their recommendation engine, it’s all about ensuring viewers want to renew their subscription next month and that, as Neil tells me, is where the value is and why their recommendation engine is so important.

Every piece of content available on Netflix has a myriad of meta data associated with it and has been tagged in multiple ways to ensure each user’s own specific tastes can be met. As an example, while you might like movies that are thrillers, everything is tagged so you can find what you might really like; political thrillers set in Washington D.C. with a strong female lead. Or romantic comedies set on a tropical island with a lesser known cast. By getting to know the types of things each person likes to watch and then comparing that to what other users with similar tastes are watching, Netflix can suggest things to you that you’re more likely than not, to enjoy.

On the availability of content
It is no secret that the NZ Netflix service is not going to have the same depth of content at the US service, or even the Australian service but as Hunt points out, from here on out, New Zealand is part of the Netflix family and any deals they do will include us in it.

While there might not be House of Cards, there are 60 new shows that Netflix have commissioned for 2015 that are exclusive to them.

Over time we’ll certainly see the services become more standardised as rights come up for renewal, particularly in the movie space.

On broadband speeds
When it comes to broadband speeds, many of us in New Zealand don’t have enough available bandwidth to access the 4K streaming that Netflix provides and while that may be the case now, Neil’s observation is that the availability will come.

Neil has a graph of his home internet connection beginning in 1984 when it was only 110 baud dial up which shows that his home speeds have followed Moore’s Law and have doubled approximately every 18 months. “The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed”, Hunt says. That certainly rings true for those of us who have fibre running under our driveways but have no ability to access it.

As far as where the service is being streamed from, Neil informed me that while their aim is to have hubs not too far from a subscriber, Netflix will also have a presence locally which should certainly help with delivery.

On local content
We’ve already seen Short Poppies given a wider audience by being picked up by Netflix but what many are concerned about is whether all these eyeballs moving away from broadcast will impact on the local screen industries and their ability to produce our stories and employ our people. As it turns out, Netflix is all about providing a global platform for local content in a way that has never been done before. Previously, a show would get commissioned and then the producers would head off to somewhere like MIPCON to try and sell it into other territories. With Netflix, if a New Zealand show were to be commissioned, there is already a global delivery network available to put our stories in front of the world. And the great thing about that, is that the budgets to produce could potentially be far greater than what is currently available, without any need to go cap in hand for a top up from NZ On Air.

We talked about the French Netflix service and their quota system and how French culture tends to translate well around the world and how there’s no reason why the same couldn’t happen for local content here. “I find myself excited by the idea that as we get a bigger and bigger global platform,” Neil says, “that we’ll be able to find more and more local niches of content that we can buy for global distribution.”

It’s an exciting prospect for local production companies and it will be fascinating to see who can make it across that starting line first.

On House of Cards
Many viewers will be aware that one of the big talking points around Netflix in recent years has been about House of Cards. While Netflix are actively pursuing buy back of their previous titles in territories where they were licensed elsewhere, as seen with Orange Is The New Black, the Kevin Spacey political drama is not available on the New Zealand service at launch.

Neil is quick to point out, with respect, that House of Cards is, in some regards, yesterday’s significant hit. The real expectation is around the new content on the horizon. Bloodline, Sense8 and Daredevil, to name a few titles, are part of a growing library of original and exclusive titles which will make the service extremely attractive to viewers.

It’s always great to talk to people who work in television who love television. They’re a different breed of person. And even more so when they’re in the position of setting the agenda.

The future is here and the future is awesome.

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About the author

Regan is one of the co-founders of Throng Media.
If they’re on, I’m usually watching Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, 24, Battlestar Galactica, The X Factor, Survivor, House of Cards, Mad Men and the NRL.

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  • Dave Ian Batten

    He’s lucky his name isn’t Mike!

  • Trevor Ashman

    I really love Netflix and the shows look wonderful in HD, also I can watch everything on my TV, YIPPEE 🙂

  • Dave Ian Batten

    Sorry for that last comment. It was meant to be a joke.

  • Kyle Wadsworth

    Brilliant. Would have been fascinating!