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Netflix flexing its consumer muscle to make smarter TVs

01/10/2015 05:00 EST | Updated 03/11/2015 05:59 EDT
Smart televisions may soon get a lot smarter, if Netflix has any say in the matter.

The streaming company this week announced its "Netflix Recommended" program at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Television manufacturers will have to meet a set of usability standards in order to qualify, at which point they'll be able to put Netflix's stamp of approval on their products.

"It will help to raise the bar. All the manufacturers will be looking to produce those recommended implementations," said Netflix chief product officer Neil Hunt in an interview. "We think it will be a big step forward for usability."

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The program is motivated by the varying experiences consumers are seeing on current smart televisions, those that connect to the internet and run applications such as Netflix.

In many cases, apps take too long to load or don't have quick suspend-and-resume features. Some also have audio problems.

Hunt says Netflix would like smart TVs to behave more like traditional channels where, if the viewer accidentally flips from one to another, a simple button push on the remote brings it right back.

Mobile devices work similarly, leaving TVs as the slow outliers.

With Netflix's growing influence and customer base — 53 million subscribers in nearly 50 countries — it's becoming a powerful force in television. An estimated one-third of households in English-speaking Canada are subscribers.

Because of that pull, televisions that fail to meet the company's standards aren't likely to sell well, according to analysts.

"In some markets, failure to have the certification will result in punishment from lower pricing or consumer recognition," says DisplaySearch analyst Paul Gray.

Certification may be more difficult to achieve for lower-cost brands, such as those from China, he added.

However, Hunt doesn't believe the standards will be onerous for manufacturers. Netflix has tested a $300 television, for example, and deemed it worthy.

"We're not adding a lot of cost, we're adding a lot of attention to engineering detail," Hunt says.

For their part, some television makers are welcoming the program because it will help differentiate their products from others.

"The Netflix Recommended TV program will point [consumers] to some of the innovative features we're introducing to make Internet TV just as easy and intuitive as linear TV," said Sony Visual Products president Masashi Imamura in a release.

Netflix may extend the program to set-top boxes and video game consoles in the future, Hunt said.

The company is also considering setting up tiers of standards where devices could get gold, silver or bronze recommendations.

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