Streaming profiles turn ten
This feels personal
Welcome to Lowpass, a newsletter about the future of entertainment and the next big hardware platforms, including smart TVs, ambient computing and AR / VR. This week: A deep dive on streaming profiles, and an exciting announcement for paying subscribers.
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Streaming profiles turn ten, remain imperfect
Ten years ago this month, Netflix introduced a new feature designed to give overwhelmed parents a much-needed break: Personalized profiles made it possible to break out watchlists and viewing recommendations for every family member, avoiding the then-all-too-common scenario of kids overwhelming their parents’ streaming suggestions with “Caillou,” “Cocomelon” and “Peppa Pig.”
Streaming profiles have since become a mainstay for the service, and have been adopted by most other streaming ventures. However, profiles have also made it easier for consumers to share their accounts with freeloading friends and family members. What’s more, as profiles evolve into identity solutions for the streaming era, smart TV platforms are trying to join the party as well – but are facing resistance from streaming service operators.
In other words: Profiles are becoming one more battlefield in the streaming wars — but they’re also something that feels very personal to individual subscribers.
Too much of a good thing. Streaming profiles are extremely popular, with Netflix recently revealing that the majority of accounts now have at least two profiles. And many subscribers have made profiles their own: People have pranked each other with profile names and pictures, have spent time and energy on personalizing and curating their profiles, and have even used streaming profiles to commemorate friends and family members who have passed away.
At the same time, profiles have arguably made it easier for consumers to share their streaming passwords with others. Having one more person on your account is not that big of a deal if their viewing doesn’t mess up your own recommendations. Netflix estimated in early 2022 that 100 million households were accessing its service without paying for it.
Netflix has never explicitly linked profiles to account sharing, but the company’s steps to curb mooching indicate that it sees profiles as both part of the problem and the solution.
In late 2022, Netflix introduced a profile transfer feature that made it possible to take existing profiles and all associated viewing and recommendation data and move it to a new Netflix account. That feature came in handy when Netflix began to enforce new sharing rules in May, prompting users who were sharing their password with others to either pay a little extra, or get their freeloading friends to spin off their viewing history into a new account.
More profiles, more problems. When Netflix launched profiles ten years ago, the company was still very much the only game in town. Fast forward to 2023, and there are tons of streaming services vying for our attention, each with their own flavor of profiles. Constantly hitting profile gates can be a hassle for streaming subscribers – especially if they’re single.
The flood of streaming services has also led to other discovery problems. Who hasn’t spent way too much time jumping from one app to the next just to find something to watch? Smart TV platforms are increasingly trying to solve this problem by becoming aggregators that surface individual shows on the TV home screen. Amazon rolled out system-wide user profiles for its Fire TV platform to further personalize these system-wide recommendations in late 2020, and Google followed suit with profiles for its Google TV platform last year.
When Amazon first announced its Fire TV profiles, the company also proposed an interesting solution for people tired of all those profile gates: By linking Fire TV profiles directly to those created for individual streaming apps, users would be able to select the right profile when they turn on their TV at the beginning of the evening, and then access their personalized recommendations in every app thereafter. The first service to embrace this kind of profile linking was Discovery+ last year. Earlier this year, Peacock enabled the same thing for Fire TV owners.
However, close to three years later, most major services are still MIA from the program. One reason for this: Streaming services are afraid that linked profiles will prevent them from innovating on identity and recommendations in the living room. And the last thing they want to introduce are new points of failure, as former HBO Max Product Experience head Sarah Lyons pointed out when I talked to her last year.
“There’s usually interaction patterns between the two (parties involved) that would cause a weird experience on one side or the other,” Lyons told me. One issue she highlighted at the time was the way different platforms handle kids profiles. HBO Max was allowing parents to set pin codes, which wasn’t handled the same way on other platforms. “Nuances like that would have to be ironed out,” she said. (HBO Max has since turned into Max, and Lyons left the streamer a year ago. Max has not integrated its profiles with Fire TV yet.)
There’s another reason the big streamers have been holding off on profile linking: These companies like to own their customer relationships, and they’re wary of companies like Amazon and Google stepping as middlemen in to handle identity solutions.
Google TV head Shalini Govil-Pai told me earlier this year that her company was looking to link TV-wide profiles with streaming app profiles as well. “That’s always (been) the goal,” she said, describing it as a “very seamless experience.” At the same time, she acknowledged that it wasn’t an easy feat to get industry-wide buy-in for this. “It’s work-in-progress,” she told me.
The evolution of profiles. That’s very much true for profiles as a whole as well. As the streaming industry evolves, so are viewers and their needs, and perhaps relationship statuses.
To account for that, Netflix launched another profile transfer feature earlier this year, which now allows subscribers to take their profiles and merge them with an existing account. And as the company is getting further into gaming, it recently began to allow each profile owner to create their own gamer tag, hinting at a future in which one single identity can be expressed differently in varying contexts. In the family room, I may be known as Daddy, but that’s probably not the name I’d use for a multiplayer online game.
One of the main issues the industry as a whole hasn’t tackled yet is the social nature of TV viewing. Smart TVs in particular are communal devices, and forcing couples, roommates or families to choose just one account for their joint viewing is a bit of an awkward workaround.
A few years ago, Netflix tried to solve this issue by testing a “Watch Together” profile that would present blended viewing recommendations by combining the data from individual profiles. However, the test flopped, with Pat Flemming, Senior Director, Product Innovation for the Netflix member experience telling me that not enough subscribers made use of the new profile. What’s more, the ones that did try it didn’t find it very valuable, likely because the recommendations missed the mark.
“It’s an idea we continue to think about, but we haven’t cracked it yet,” Fleming said.
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Announcing Filter Talks
Ever since launching Lowpass earlier this year, I’ve been toying with ideas for building a community around this newsletter. Today, I’m excited to announce the next step on that journey: Filter Talks, a series of intimate online conversations about the future of technology and entertainment.
The first Filter Talk will feature a conversation with Jerremy Toeman, the CEO of AugX Labs. Toeman has a long history in online media, which includes working on the original Slingbox, founding the social TV startup Dijit, as well as leadership roles at CBS Interactive, WarnerMedia and Joyn. We’ll talk about his company’s new video creation tool Augie, the state of AI video, streaming and more.
Filter Talks will be live streamed to paying Lowpass subscribers only, who will be able to submit their own questions in real time via the Lowpass Slack. The goal is to make this a curated two-way conversation, giving everyone a chance to pick Jeremy’s brain, while at the same time making sure that no one hogs the mic. Well, except me, that is …
Mark your calendars: The inaugural Lowpass Filter Talk will happen on 8/24 at 11am PT / 2pm ET.
To watch it, you’ll have to be a Lowpass premium subscriber. Upgrade your subscription here.
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I’ve spent some time last weekend visiting a surplus / reuse store in San Francisco, which apparently at one point got a major donation from Mozilla. This included a massive wall sign reading “Hacking from Mountain View” that was once displayed in the foyer of the browser maker’s since-shuttered Mountain View office. I passed on that one, but I did buy a ten-pack of Mozilla-branded notebooks for just $2, which for some reason feature the sentence “for the love of speed” on the cover. Come to think of it, that’s a pretty weird slogan ...
Note to self: If I ever do Lowpass merch, I’ll make sure that it can’t be confused with an adderall commercial.
Thanks for reading, have a great weekend!
Image courtesy of Netflix.