Netflix refashions itself for the small screen

November 13, 2013: 12:01 AM ET

With a content strategy well underway, the media company takes a hard look at how its core product appears in the living room.

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FORTUNE—America's obsession with Netflix goes well beyond recent hit shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. It spans genres and generations, and accounts for 1 billion hours of viewing a month—nearly one third of all downstream Internet traffic.

Now Netflix (NFLX) wants to ensconce itself even further in our living rooms. On Wednesday, the company will begin to roll out a radically revamped look and feel for those who watch the movie streaming service on their television set.

The new interface, which has been two years in the making, is a visually striking departure from the familiar grid of movie tiles and boxes, and it is designed to be mirror the experience of TV watching: you click the remote and something happens.

MORE: Portrait of the Netflix founder as a young man

In the new Netflix for TV, a click delivers a full-screen, image rich description for each title, along with more details on why Netflix suggested it for you. As you slide to the next title, a new immersive display pops us, with multiple images, rather than just one, that rotate in sequence to better illustrate the movie or television show and make it easier to discover and choose new shows. Search for a movie is also a more visual experience. "This is the biggest change in how Netflix looks on a TV," says Chris Jaffe, Netflix's vice president of product innovation.

Jaffe says he's extremely confident that the change will result in people spending more time on Netflix. Why such certainty? Because the company has quietly rolled out the new interface to new users on some devices and has seen the results. "People are going to watch more," he says. "We've proven it."

More usage on TVs could help the company retain subscribers, as more than half of Netflix use is on television sets, either smart TVs equipped with Internet access, or via devices like Blu-ray players, Roku, Apple TV and gaming systems like Xbox and PlayStation.

Importantly, Netflix completely rebuilt the technology it uses to stream shows and movies onto televisions. Instead of using different versions of its technology for different devices, Netflix has unified all of it in a new platform. As a result, the changes will roll out simultaneously to all devices. Or almost all: owners of Apple TV, one of the most popular Internet television devices, will not receive the new look or technology because the device has "specific templates that are set by Apple," according to a Netflix spokesman. Only some recent models of Internet-enabled televisions will get the update, as will the Roku 3 media player, but not earlier versions of that device.

The new look is visually appealing, and an improvement over the old one. But my first question upon seeing it: why can't Netflix show trailers instead of, or at least in addition to, the stunning promotional artwork for each movie? It turns out that the new technology platform may allow for just that. "We have a whole set of projects for the next year," Jaffe says. "Video is an obvious one. This is the beginning of a long journey for us."

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About This Author
Miguel Helft
Miguel Helft
Senior Writer, Fortune

Miguel Helft is a San Francisco-based Senior Writer at FORTUNE, where he covers Silicon Valley. He joined FORTUNE in August 2011 following a 5-year stint as a reporter at The New York Times covering companies like Apple, Facebook and Google. His knowledge of Silicon Valley and the tech world runs deep. He worked as a software engineer at Sun Microsystems in the late-1980s, and for the past 15 years, he has chronicled major industry events -- from the Microsoft antitrust trial to the dot-com boom and bust - at publications like the Industry Standard, the San Jose Mercury News and the Los Angeles Times. Born and raised in Argentina, Helft emigrated to the U.S. to attend Stanford University, where he earned a BA in Philosophy and a Master's in Computer Science.


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