Netflix's management shuffle

Fully Charged
Bloomberg

Hey y'all, it's Austin. Last week it finally became official: Content is king at Netflix. On Thursday the company appointed Ted Sarandos, its longtime chief content officer, to the co-CEO role alongside co-founder Reed Hastings. With Sarandos' deep Hollywood relationships and track record architecting Netflix's original content strategy, observers concluded that the company's true home is in Hollywood.

But it's worth noting the other half of the new org structure: Netflix, valued at $217 billion, also elevated chief product officer Greg Peters to chief operating officer. It was a signal that the Los Gatos, California-based streaming giant has no plans to abandon its Silicon Valley roots. Product design is an easily overlooked function when there's a constant funnel of splashy shows on new platforms—from Quibi to HBO Max to Disney+ to Comcast Corp.'s Peacock—but it's a critical factor in the streaming wars.

It was technical savvy that got Netflix off the ground in the first place. The company was founded in 1997, 16 years prior to its House of Cards ushering in an era of web-centric original content. For much of that timespan, Netflix made a name for itself through its unparalleled user experience, from its seamless DVD delivery, to its video-recommendation algorithm, to its early forays into online and mobile streaming applications. And Hastings helped develop Netflix's "Project Griffin," a prescient piece of hardware that could play digital media without a cable subscription. (The group was spun off and eventually became Roku Inc.)

Today, many credit Netflix's success to its content, but it's arguably its user interfaces (UI) that laid the foundation to amass 193 million subscribers. On the company's earnings call, Hastings played up the importance of the company's tech: "Every day, we work on making our service better, trying to make it so the billboard on the front of the UI, you could just click it and watch it and just, like, trust that result." He also nerd-joked with Peters about his knowledge of C++ and Java programing languages.

Netflix appears to have hit a rough patch four months into the pandemic. The company's stock sank more than 6% on Friday after it reported subscriber growth that was far lower than expected. Some analysts pointed to the rising competition from a growing number of rivals, like Walt Disney Co., which has pulled its content library from Netflix to strengthen its own service.

But the fight isn't just over shows. Netflix is now fending off strong technical competition, too. Amazon.com Inc.'s massive investment in voice-recognition technology has helped differentiate its Prime and Fire TV services. Apple Inc.'s set-top box has won raves for its intuitive home screen, while its TV+ on-boarding process is the slickest I've come across. And Android-based products such as Google's Chromecast and Xiaomi Corp.'s Mi TV Stick feature an easy plug-and-play experience.

Meanwhile, streaming companies that have prioritized content over design risk falling behind. Hulu, for example, has long struggled with complaints about its content-discovery capabilities. Disney+ has faced criticism for its app feeling sterile and empty, despite its wealth of original content. And, personally, though I likely binge on more TV shows from Bravo and HBO than any other network, I find myself using their streaming services less and less due to their confusing interfaces.

At Netflix, as in any Hollywood production, the big stars and new content are getting most of the attention. But this awards season, spare a thought for the product engineers and designers. Austin Carr

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