For the voracious consumer of movies and TV shows old and new, the Netflix mail-order rental service is both useful and annoying. It is also addictive. I speak as a four-at-a-time subscriber who carefully manages and updates his queue of titles, closely monitors their return to the Netflix depot and waits anxiously for the postman to bring the next stash. Here, based on five months of obsessive use, of pleasure and frustration in roughly equal amounts, are five ways to improve the effectiveness of America's favorite online movie provider.
1. Give fuller descriptions of the merchandise. Click on a title and you get a picture of the DVD box and a 60- to 80-word summary of the plot, with the stars, the genre and often the director listed. That's sufficient for big, recent works, but of little help for older movies. On some multifilm packs, the titles aren't mentioned. Other oldies may have several editions, of varying visual quality and with great extras or none. Netflix usually carries only one edition. To find out which one, you must go to a site like Amazon.com, find the item with the same box picture and read up on the editorial and customer reviews there. (In gratitude, you may end up buying from Amazon instead of renting from Netflix.) A lot of this trouble would be saved if Netflix were to list the distributor. I'll take it from there.
2. Make new rules for the waiting game. The attraction of Netflix for many users that you can watch a movie at your convenience and return it at your whim is an annoyance for those subscribers interested in films that the company has fewer copies of. Most customers at a video store don't keep a title long, because they're paying more every day it's out. But since Netflix lets titles stay out indefinitely, it has no way of determining when a member will return an old movie, and thus when it will become available for you, the next in line. Its categories Short Wait, Long Wait, Very Long Wait have to be based on guesswork. For titles whose supply is very limited, could Netflix establish a one- or two-week limit, with penalties attached? And to you poky members: Watch the damn movie and send it back!
3. Perk up your algorithms. The success of any online retail service depends in part on steering customers to products similar to the ones they've bought guided browsing, so to speak. How does a company read your mind? Through computer algorithms, which sift through the universe of possibilities to determine that B, C and D would attract the interest of people who bought A. Amazon.com's algorithms result in some astute suggestions; Netflix's suck. If, on the search line, you type in the documentary Joe Louis: For All Time, you'll be directed to the French omnibus film Paris, Je T'Aime. (T'aime is close to time, but the two movies have absolutely nothing in common.) Try The Monster and the Ape, a 1947 serial, and up pops the 2009 animated film Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure. Recognizing that its Cinematch system isn't cutting it, Netflix established a $1 million prize for better algorithms, which has already been claimed by a coalition of programmers named BellKor's Pragmatic Chaos. I hope the new system works; it would be worth every penny.
4. Find a better post office. You get the most use from Netflix by getting and returning your discs faster. That depends not just on you but on the delivery system: the U.S. Postal Service. I take my Netflix envelopes to one of three local post offices late each afternoon; they get to the nearest Netflix center the next day about 70% of the time. That's good, but not reliable. As one of the largest payers of first-class mail, couldn't Netflix exert a little muscle on the Postal Service by which I mean the ones near me in lower Manhattan to increase the rate of efficiency, and thus get movies to its subscribers faster?
5. Turn the stream into a mighty river. About half of the company's costs go to paying the people who fill the envelopes and to the Postal Service. Netflix would love to dispense with those costs and send its product directly to customers by streaming it to their TVs. At the moment about 12,000 of the more than 100,000 titles are available for streaming, but that requires a Blu-ray player or a special Netflix device that sells for about $100. The company doesn't expect to be fully streaming for another five years. That's a long time to keep schlepping videos to the post office and hoping new ones arrive on time. Dear Netflix: Could the future arrive a little earlier, please?