You May Have Noticed Netflix Is Testing a New Feature. It’s Distracting But Intriguing

I was watching Netflix’s new movie Dumplin’ — a cutesy, cheesy comedy about a teenage underdog coming to realize just how excellent underdogs can be when I saw an unfamiliar prompt in the corner of my screen.

The main character, a plus-size teen named Willowdean Dixon (Danielle Macdonald), had entered a beauty pageant in large part to antagonize her vain, former-pageant-queen mother (Jennifer Aniston). And we had just arrived at the inevitable scene where poor, self-conscious Willowdean must learn the dance moves to a sassy little number that all the contestants will do on the big night.

She stands awkwardly in the back of the room, as her mother, a coach for the pageant, invites some conventional-looking beauties up to the front of the class, to show the rest of the ladies how a flirty square dance is done. While an intimidating moment for Willowdean, the performance was cute. So cute, in fact, that Netflix seemed to believe that one viewing would not be sufficient: “Watch That Scene Again” offered a box that popped up at the bottom of the screen.

Netflix confirmed to TIME that it is testing a new almost-instant replay feature that aims to give users “the ability re-watch favorite scenes and memorable moments with the click of a button.” Right now, a spokesperson said, they’re looking to learn from how people use it (or don’t) and “may or may not roll it out more broadly in the future.”

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It happened at least two more times during the film — once after a raw, emotional scene in which Willowdean questions whether a cute boy can really like someone who looks like her — and again after another musical number. Netflix declined to answer questions about how such scenes are chosen, how many users are currently part of the test or what it hopes to gain by adding the feature. (Those users who are seeing the notifications and don’t like them can opt out of the test in their account settings.)

But given the company’s approach to using data about viewers’ watching habits in order to drive the content they create, it’s a good bet that the scenes were selected based on viewers’ past behavior. (Countless people have surely replayed cinematic dance scenes in order to learn the steps.) And it’s an equally good bet that the move is meant to, at least in some small measure, set the service apart in an increasingly crowded field.

I, for one, did not click. The prompts jarred me out of my cheesy-movie groove, like a subtitle suddenly cropping up on the screen. It didn’t seem worth the distraction, given how easy it already is to rewind and re-watch a scene. But Mike Olson, a senior research analyst at Piper Jaffray, points out that users adapt to such additions, whether it’s advertising on a news site or a digital strike-zone imposed on the telecast of a Major League baseball game. “We as consumers,” he says, “tend to get used to those things.”

And he sees it as part of grander experimentation that is possible when people are consuming shows and movies via the Internet, like prompts that may eventually allow people to purchase clothes or furniture that catch their eye on screen.

The instant-replay offers may also provide some insight about what other people do when they watch movies, like a Kindle displaying which passages other readers highlighted when they read an ebook — suggesting that a particular scene was funny or confusing or beautiful enough to watch a second time. And it will be interesting to find out if Netflix tries to personalize such suggestions, like it does the recommendations that show up on some 137 million subscribers’ home screens.

“This is just another way,” Olson says, “that they can differentiate the experience.”


Entertainment – TIME

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