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Netflix’s ‘Bandersnatch’ Ushers in the Dawn of Interactive TV?

People’s viewing habits determine the types of shows that will be made in the future

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BY Vernon Velasco - 24 Jan 2019

bandersnatch netflix

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

For those who have seen Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch, its appeal lies not in its horror but in its madness. The movie skips jump scares in favor of a different kind of dread.

Netflix's major release is not for the average couch-potato. It’s not the type of psycho-thriller that makes one kvetch to a limp-noodle because the main character runs too slow or is just too clueless that you wish you were in charge.

Instead, here, you actually decide for Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), an 80's game developer set out to adapt the titular multiple-choice dystopian sci-fi novel into a video game.

At various junctures, the viewers choose what cereals he'll eat, when death suddenly becomes appealing, whether or not he'll jump off a high-rise, or whether he'll dispose of his dead father by burying him or cutting and dumping his meaty parts.

Like Stefan, the viewer is a rat in a maze--and every bit as accountable as the main character for each decision made.

Of course, like a video game, you can restart at checkpoint and veer into a different timeline when you hit a snag, each choice leading to an equally diametrical outcome, so you can watch again and see a new story each time.

The thing with watching Bandersnatch, or any Netflix movie for that matter, is that while you watch it, it's also watching you. One of Netflix’s early value propositions that has proven critical to its success is the ability to gather user insights and visualize data, as viewing habits are crucial in predicting consumer behavior.

With Bandersnatch, you get an insight into your own mental tendencies, and so does Netflix. This relatively new way to experience content [there have been a number of precedents: think Radúz ?in?era’s Kinoautomat in 1967 and Choose Your Own Adventure game books] is another means by the company to understand consumers' viewing habits beyond the usual metrics like page views, time spent on site and click-throughs. And it uses this data to give customers hyper-targeted content.

In Netflix’s Q4 earnings interview, CEO Reed Hastings, holding a Quaker box in one hand and Kellogg’s on the other, shares that 73 percent of Bandersnatch viewers tagged Kellogg’s Frosties cereal as the more popular choice. 

"We don’t ask viewers what they like," Todd Yellin, VP of Products at Netflix, says in a Bandersnatch featurette. "All we can do is watch how millions of people around the world watch TV and, based on that, when we know everything about their viewing behavior, we can help people find something great to watch."

Yellin adds: "One of the things we started talking about is interactive content. We tried a couple of kids specials [Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale, Buddy Thunderstruck: The Maybe Pile, Minecraft: Story Mode]. Then it was time to roll up our sleeves and go 'How about we do it for adults?'"

With Bandersnatch, to watch something on Netflix suddenly isn't just about matchmaking consumer and content through personalization and algorithms.

The possibilities are immense, ones that create rather than predict, drive consumer engagement, attract a broader online viewership, and take non-linear storytelling and "gamify" the living room telly as a logical next step. 

Bandersnatch is considered one of the most experimental ventures taken by the streaming company. 

"We can be so overwhelmed by the speed of change and how right before our eyes the shape of the familiar is being reinvented into what leads us to the gateway of the future," Filipino writer and director Joey Reyes tells Inc. Southeast Asia. "No longer is the audience a passive observer or a receptacle of information: Now we shape our own narratives and become both audience and storyteller."

Simon Parkin of The New Yorker posits that much of the episode’s success relies on the clever marriage of theme and mechanism. “Bandersnatch’s do-overs lighten the weight of our decisions, which, in turn, lightens the gravity of the whole. It’s an exhilarating experiment,” he writes.

Darlyn Vasquez of the Daily Titan, on the other hand, thinks that Bandersnatch is disappointing and pure hogwash. “The storyline was deprived of essential suspenseful elements that avid Black Mirror watchers are familiar with,” she writes. “Instead of being on the edge of my seat, I was slumped over waiting for the film to be over.”

On its Q4 2018 webcast on January 17, Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos points out that the possible wholesale adoption of interactive TV format has "got storytellers salivating about the possibilities."

"There's a hunch that it would work in all kinds of storytelling and some of the greatest storytellers in the world are excited to dig in to it," he says.

Chief Product Officer Greg Peters adds: "Anticipate we'll do more of these [interactive shows] as we explore the format." 

While the company's direction leans toward creating choose-your-own-adventure narrative videos, many other Internet leaders are also in the thick of integrating interactive elements into their platforms.

Publishers and creators on Facebook Watch, for instance, may now add quizzes, polls and challenges to their videos—a game show if you will—with the platform’s new interactive features.

Amazon's new streaming deal with the NFL allows the platform to offer live Thursday Night Football games on Twitch, a live-streaming video platform, leveraging some interactive chat features which Twitch offers in its video game streams.


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