Take a Bow, Netflix: How the streaming service won 2016

2016 has been a damn good year for Netflix, with a number of award winning programmes being launched. We take a look at what has gone well for the streaming service and what is still to come

Let’s have a round of applause for Netflix. In July the streaming service gave us Stranger Things; in August the stylish The Get Down launched; in September we (spoiler alert) briefly caught up with Pablo Escobar in Narcos, and in October Marvel’s Luke Cage made his debut as a series lead in the imaginatively titled Marvel’s Luke Cage. To have one hit show in a year would be good, two is great, but to have four in half a year – and we haven’t even mentioned Black Mirror – is unbelievable.

2016 has undoubtedly been the year that Netflix has achieved supremacy in home entertainment, but the streaming service remains essentially a technology company and it’s this – the ability to analyse vast amounts of data about its customers’ viewing preferences, so it can decide what content to buy and how much to pay for it – that is separating it from traditional television networks. But with each successful launch, it’s hard to argue against the fact that Netflix is becoming more than just a technology company; it’s becoming a media giant.

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Image courtesy of Maxx Satori / Shutterstock.com. Featured image courtesy of Twin Design / Shutterstock.com

Thanks to its new status, Netflix finds itself in the unenviable position of having to compete with companies with much larger resources because being a television network comes at a cost. A massive, eye-watering cost. In a letter to shareholders that detailed Netflix’s results for the third quarter of 2016, the company announced that although quarterly global streaming revenue had exceeded $2bn for the first time, its net income for the same quarter was only £52m and streaming content obligations – the money Netflix pays to license, acquire and produce content – just reached £14.4bn.

Being a technology company, Netflix seems to see innovation as the answer to any problems it has, so in 2017 we’ll see at least another 400 hours of original content – from 600 hours to over 1000 – and rumours suggest that Netflix may introduce downloads by the end of the year. But can Netflix thrive in the new media world it has created? And more importantly, can Netflix continue to hit home runs when it comes to content?

Room to create

Netflix explains that it is able to create award-winning content because of its ability to “support programs for both mass and niche audiences alike”. In a letter to shareholders the company said: “Since we are not shelf-space constrained nor reliant on advertising, we have the luxury to tell all kinds of stories in less traditional ways. The growth of internet TV globally has ushered in a new golden age of content, with consumers everywhere enjoying unprecedented access to amazing amounts of high quality programming.”

Like any good technology company, Netflix monitors streams of data to predict what shows will work and what won’t. But it isn’t all about data. Netflix, unburdened by genre, advertising revenues or ratings, can pretty much commission what it wants.

“The worst thing you can do at Netflix is say that you showed it to 12 people in a focus room and they loved it,” said Todd Yellin, the company’s vice president of product innovation, in an interview with the New York Times.

Marvel's Luke Cage. Source: Netflix

Marvel’s Luke Cage. Image courtesy of Netflix

Netflix doesn’t have adverts, so it doesn’t need to aggregate viewers for advertisers, care about ratings or make programmes that are written, shot and edited to accommodate commercial breaks. All of this means Netflix can afford to be bolder with its content. There aren’t too many media companies who will give a home to foreign language television programmes (Narcos) or programmes that have female or black leads (Jessica Jones, Luke Cage), but Netflix does.

There also aren’t too many television networks who give creatives the amount of freedom Netflix does. What started as a way to beat HBO to House of Cards has become Netflix’s standard practice, so shows no longer need a pilot and can be commissioned for multiple series without having to worry about ratings.

“Netflix are daring and try to tell stories that would never be aired on linear TV,” a spokesperson for Netflix told Factor.

Netflix eyes China

As Netflix attempts to get a foothold in new territories, like China, we’ll see more shows that cater to different nationalities and cultures. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said at the DealBook conference in New York that the company is “hopeful that we’ll over time make a great Bollywood show, make a great anime show”.

The company is already experimenting with this. Narcos is produced in Bogota, Columbia, features Brazilian actors and is directed by a Brazilian, but most importantly is delivered in English and Spanish, which allows Netflix to target its Spanish-speaking audience.

50%, and growing, of nearly 1.4 billion people is the equivalent of hitting oil to Netflix

But it’s China that the company is really targeting because, as subscriber numbers plateau in Netflix’s established markets, China represents an untapped well. In a dollar bills appearing in Reed Hastings eyes and the sound of tills opening kind of way.

If Netflix wants to continue to spend lavishly on its own programming as well as secure licences for shows like Star Trek: Discovery and The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story then it needs the increased revenue breaking the Chinese market would present. There’s a reason everyone from Disney to Apple wants to get into China: internet usage in China currently stands at 50% of the population, according to the World Bank. 50%, and growing, of nearly 1.4 billion people is the equivalent of hitting oil to Netflix.

“The regulatory environment for foreign digital content services in China has become challenging,” reads Netflix’s statement to investors on the subject of China. For the minute Netflix is attempting to solve its China problem by licensing content to existing online service providers, rather than operating its own service in the country, but the modest income this will accrue is nothing compared to the potential earnings that would come with getting Netflix into the country itself.

The Pill

In Bill Hicks’ Revelations stand-up performance he ruminates on how the stunts in Terminator 2 are ever going to be topped. Netflix may be in a similar position now because it’s hard to come out with hit after hit after hit. Hicks suggested using terminally ill people as stuntmen; this isn’t an avenue Netflix is expected to go down, but the company has some, only-slightly less, outlandish plans.

Speaking at The Wall Street Journal’s WSJD event, Hastings said that in the long term “movies and TV shows will be like opera and the novel…There will be substitutes”. One possible substitute mentioned by Hastings could be “pharmacological” meaning Netflix is possibly considering an entertainment drug that viewers could use to put themselves in the midst of a story.

factor-archive-30To be honest, the idea sounds like something borrowed from Bill Hicks, but it is indicative of what makes Netflix great. It’s a company that isn’t planning on letting its product become obsolete, and even though it becoming a television network, Netflix will never forget that at heart it is an innovative technology company. So while there probably aren’t any chemists working on Netflix’s pills yet, don’t expect the company to be satisfied with just producing hit television in the years to come.

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Beyond biomimicry: Scientists find better-than-nature run style for six-legged robots

Researchers have found a running style for six-legged robots that significantly improves on the traditional nature-inspired method of movement.

The research, conducted by scientists at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the University of Lausanne (UNIL) in Switzerland, found that as long as the robots are not equipped with insect-like adhesive pads, it is faster for them to move with only two legs on the ground at any given time.

Robotics has in the past few years made heavy use of biomimicry – the practice of mimicking natural systems – resulting in six-legged robots being designed to move like insects. In nature, insects use what is known as a tripod gait, where they have three legs on the ground at a time, so it had been assumed that this was the most efficient way for similarly legged robots to move.

However, by undertaking a series of computer simulations, tests on robots and experiments on Drosophila melanogaster – better known as the common fruit fly – the scientists found that the two-legged approach, which they have dubbed the bipod gait, results in faster and more efficient movement.

The core goal of the research, which is published today in the journal Nature Communications, was to confirm whether the long-held assumption that a tripod gait was best was indeed correct.

“We wanted to determine why insects use a tripod gait and identify whether it is, indeed, the fastest way for six-legged animals and robots to walk,” said Pavan Ramdya, study co-lead and corresponding author.

Initially, this involved the use of a simulated insect model based on the common fruit fly and an algorithm designed to mimic different evolutionary stages. This algorithm simulated different potential gaits to create a shortlist of those that it deemed to be the fastest.

This, however, shed light on why insects have a tripod gait – and why it may not be the best option for robots. The simulations showed that the traditional tripod gait works in combination with the adhesive pad found on the ends of insects’ legs to make climbing over vertical surfaces such as rocks easier and quicker.

Robots, however, are typically designed to walk along flat surfaces, and so the benefits of such a gait are lost.

“Our findings support the idea that insects use a tripod gait to most effectively walk on surfaces in three dimensions, and because their legs have adhesive properties. This confirms a long-standing biological hypothesis,” said Ramdya. “Ground robots should therefore break free from only using the tripod gait”.

Study co-lead authors Robin Thandiackal (left) and Pavan Ramdya with the six-legged robot used in the research. Images courtesy of EPFL/Alain Herzog

To for always corroborate the simulation’s findings, the researchers built a six-legged robot that could move either with a bipod or tripod gait, and which quickly confirmed the research by being faster when moving with just two legs on the ground at once.

However, they went further by confirming that the adhesive pads were in fact playing a role in the insect’s tripod movement.

They did this by equipping the fruit flies with tiny polymer boots that would cover the adhesive pads, and so remove their role in the way the insects moved. The flies’ responses confirms their theory: they began moving with a bipod-like gate rather than their conventional tripod-style movement.

“This result shows that, unlike most robots, animals can adapt to find new ways of walking under new circumstances,” said study co-lead author Robin Thandiackal.

As bizarre as the research sounds, it provides valuable new insights both for roboticists and biologists, and could lead to a new standard in the way that six legged robots are designed to move.

“There is a natural dialogue between robotics and biology: Many robot designers are inspired by nature and biologists can use robots to better understand the behavior of animal species,” added Thandiackal. “We believe that our work represents an important contribution to the study of animal and robotic locomotion.”