Netflix deploys trouble-shooting engineers in 'war room' to fine tune its original programming

  • Article by: MICHAEL LIEDTKE , AP Technology Writer
  • Updated: July 25, 2013 - 8:05 AM

LOS GATOS, Calif. — Netflix's Internet video subscription service works around the clock, but it's unusual for more than two dozen of the company's engineers and top managers to be huddled in a conference room at 10:30 on a midsummer Wednesday evening.

This is a special occasion. It's near the end of a grueling day that will culminate in the premiere of "Orange Is The New Black," the fourth exclusive Netflix series to be released in five months. The show's first episode is called "I Wasn't Ready," and everyone in the room has been logging long hours to ensure that the title doesn't apply to the debut.

Netflix Inc. invited The Associated Press to its Los Gatos, Calif., headquarters for an unprecedented glimpse at the technical preparations that go into the release of its original programming. The shows have become the foundation of Netflix's push to build an Internet counterpart to HBO's premium cable channel.

"This is Silicon Valley's equivalent of a midnight movie premiere in Hollywood," says Chris Jaffe, Netflix's vice president of product innovation.

Netflix made a name for itself as a DVD-by-mail provider and an Internet video streaming business mainly by offering content from other companies. Lately, the company has been releasing its own content as a way to hook new customers on its $8-per-month streaming service.

The company promised its 37.6 million worldwide subscribers that they can start watching all 13 episodes of its latest original series at the stroke of midnight, Pacific Time, on July 11. So Jaffe and Netflix engineering director Bob Heldt have summoned a battalion of key employees to a conference room named after "Dark Passage," a 1947 film noir starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

On this night, the setting has been transformed into Netflix's version of a war room. The engineers are flanked by seven flat-screen televisions on one side of the room and two giant screens on the other. One big screen is scrolling through Twitter to highlight tweets mentioning "Orange Is The New Black," an offbeat drama set in a women's prison. The other screen is listing some of Netflix's most closely guarded information — the rankings of videos that are attracting the most viewers on an hourly basis.

If all goes well, the pizza and snacks that Netflix's bleary-eyed workers have been munching will be washed down with a champagne celebration after the show starts streaming.

"This will be a successful night if we are here at midnight and it turns out that we really didn't need to be because there were no problems," says Yury Izrailevsky, Netflix's vice president of cloud computing and platform engineering.

The mission is to ensure each installment of "Orange Is The New Black" has been properly coded so the series can be watched on any of the 800 Internet-connected devices compatible with Netflix's service.

It's a complex task because Netflix has to account for viewers who have different Internet connection speeds, various screen sizes and different technologies running the devices. About 120 variations of code have been programmed into "Orange Is The New Black" to prepare it to be streamed on Netflix throughout the U.S and 39 other countries. Another set of engineers had to ensure foreign-language subtitles and dubbing were in place and streaming properly.

Others are still checking to make certain that the English dialogue properly syncs with the video being shown at different Internet connection speeds. Just before another Netflix series, "House of Cards," debuted in February, engineers detected two minutes of dialogue that was out of sync with video played on iPhones at certain speeds, prompting a mad scramble to fix the problem before the series was released to subscribers.

Netflix typically doesn't have to go through all these steps when it licenses content that has previously been shown in theaters or on TV networks. Much of the technical work already has been done on the recycled video, leaving a minimal amount for Netflix's internal team to do. Not so with the original programming being made expressly for Netflix.

"We have to start from scratch with these original series," Heldt says.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings is so confident that his team will get it right that he doesn't feel a need to show up in the war room, or even bother to stay up late to make sure everything is going smoothly. "They know what they are doing and I know everything will be working great, so I can see the episodes in the morning," he said.

The stakes and anticipation surrounding Netflix's original series are much higher than with non-original programming from Netflix's library.

Netflix hasn't revealed how much it paid for each series, but Hastings has estimated the company will spend about $200 million annually during the next few years on original programming. That represents about 10 percent of Netflix's roughly $2 billion budget for video licensing.

The original series also are being given a bigger piece of Netflix's $450 million annual marketing budget as the company tries to exploit the shows to boost subscribership. Netflix gives newcomers a month to test the service for free, which gives the company a chance to impress viewers with the quality of programming in its library. Any kind of technical glitch with a new series such as "Orange Is The New Black" would likely be a quick turn-off.

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