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Netflix feels like Blockbuster these days

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Personalization is no longer a priority

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I’ve been a Netflix customer since the early 2000s, and have often been impressed with the service’s ability to recommend films and TV shows I’ve never heard of but perfectly fit my taste. It introduced me to Nightcrawler, a twisted thriller, and to Event Horizon, a delightful mashup of horror and sci-fi.

Sadly, today’s Netflix has a different set of priorities. I was looking for something to watch the other day, and the first thing it showed me was True Memoirs of an International Assassin, a Netflix original starring Kevin James. This wasn’t just a shoddy suggestion, a film that didn’t quite match my taste. This was the kind of movie I loathe, an over-the-top action comedy from a former sitcom star.

The movie got an animated preview and took up most of the screen. Below that was a row of large rectangular boxes, each featuring another Netflix original. It was clear that this stuff wasn’t personalized either. I’ve already seen every episode of Stranger Things and House of Cards, so why is Netflix recommending them to me?

The next row down was “trending now.” It included titles like Gilmore Girls and Friends, shows I hated when they were on television. Below the trending selection was a row of movies that had been “recently added.” I was now four sections deep into the Netflix menu and not a single suggestion felt really personalized to me. It was about marketing Netflix’s original content, or showing me stuff that happened to be popular and new.

I was struck by how much the experience of scrolling through the Netflix homepage was like browsing through Blockbuster 20 years ago. A huge display case for the big-budget movies right when you walk in the door, then the most popular titles and the new arrivals just beyond that.

The Netflix homepage wasn’t totally devoid of personalization. The recently added seemed at least mildly optimized to match me, and the fifth row offered me a chance to watch films I’ve already seen another time. The six row highlighted stuff I had left unfinished that I could continue watching. And way down on the seventh row, Netflix offered its “Top Picks for Ben.” But this stuff was buried several screen’s worth of scrolling down from where I started.

This isn’t a rant asking anyone to feel sorry for me. Being forced to scroll a little ways down a webpage to find a good movie is the epitome of first world problems. But I think the layout of the Netflix homepage says a lot of how the service has changed over the last five years, and what its priorities are. I loved opening Netflix on my laptop and being met with a prompt to keep watching something I had left unfinished or to explore films geared toward my taste. These days that discovery mechanism has been pushed down under promotion for store-brand product.

Netflix needed to move away from licensing most of its content, because under that model, it couldn’t control its destiny. Rates to license content kept rising, as new players like Amazon, Hulu, and Sony entered the market. The company recently told investors that it expects its spending in the near future will be split evenly between licensed and original content. Original content means Netflix doesn’t have to renegotiate rights to stream certain films and shows every few years. In fact, it can start making money by selling its own popular programs for syndication on TV networks around the world.

Getting into the syndication game, however, means Netflix is now heavily incentivized to push its own content, and it seems like it is willing to do that even if a film or series isn’t a good match for a user’s taste. I still get plenty of value out of Netflix, and love a lot of its originals. But I miss the user experience that was focused primarily on surfacing stuff that was right for me, on finding weird, little-known gems that would never find a big audience but were perfectly suited to my tastes. I guess it’s time to make friends with my local video store clerk again.