Netflix wants cable TV to be just another app

When it comes to the living room, Netflix has a problem. Sure, it's ridiculously simple to get Netflix on your TV: Virtually every smart set offers the service, as do games consoles, streaming boxes and even some DVRs. But as users power on their TV, they're not powering on Netflix. Instead, they're probably watching cable, or perhaps logging onto their PS4 or Xbox. Depending on their setup, it's likely to take minutes to start streaming something. Announced this morning, Netflix's Recommended TV program is an evaluation process that it hopes will bring a better experience to its customers, and elevate the importance of its service to be on par with cable TV. Today at CES, the company demoed what this program will mean, and why it's a good idea for everyone -- including its competitors.

Netflix has a long list of checkboxes for manufacturers to tick in order to meet its standards, but it's being vague about what and what isn't essential. The first demo was on a Hisense set running Roku TV. At first glance, this set is no different to any other Roku set, so what makes this a Recommended TV? In this case, it's a combination of super-fast boot up -- roughly a second to get into either the home screen or jump directly into Netflix via a dedicated button on the remote -- and fast app switching. Once in the app, navigation is swift -- far faster than, say, a PS4 or Samsung's 2014 flagship smart TV, despite it being a budget set.

In Netflix's ideal world, there would undoubtedly be a dedicated button to launch its service on every remote, but although that's one of the criteria for approval, it won't force companies to do that, as proved by the second demo on a 4K LG webOS TV. Here, there were no buttons for launching Netflix from standby, and no booting into a menu. Instead it was a standard TV that gained the badge of honor thanks to its ability to quickly switch to Netflix and resume playback from other apps.

The main requirement for certification seems to be fast loading

Netflix is vague on what TVs will be approved through its program, and what the criteria will be. The main requirement seems to be fast loading of the Netflix app and streams. As to how exactly the program will work, Netflix will evaluate products when they're ready to be shipped, and either judge them fit or unfit for its Recommended TV logo. If they're deemed good enough, the badge will be displayed on the stickers in-store alongside Dolby certification and other similar logos. These stickers will only appear on TVs sold in the US -- regional differences between sets mean Netflix isn't ready to start certifying them abroad. Presently Sony, LG, Sharp, Vizio and Roku TV sets will be considered for certification, and Netflix says that it expects a lot of interest from other manufacturers.

Netflix Recommended TV

It's a fairly low-key announcement for CES, but one that Netflix believes is essential for its continued growth. "Internet television bolted on has been the wrong way to go for a long time," says Cliff Edwards, Netflix's director of corporate communications and technology. "We're happy that a lot of partners have signed up for the program. ... It's about putting internet television on the same footing as regular TV." Put simply, Netflix wants its service to be just as important as cable TV. It wants cable TV to be just another app. It's also keen to point out that the program will benefit the entire web TV industry -- its rationale is that TVs that offer the best Netflix experience will obviously excel at Amazon Instant Video playback as well.

"It's about putting internet television on the same footing as regular TV."

Today's announcement aside, Netflix is excited to see 4K adoption rapidly growing; it believes it's going to be a big part of how we consume 4K content, with its Originals lineup switching to all-4K this year (following the 4K debuts of House of Cards and Marco Polo last year), and also points to HDR video as a major growth area. This morning, LG showed off an HDR version of Marco Polo playing on its new 65-inch 4K OLED set, and we were treated to the same demo up close. It's definitely different to the regular 4K version it was running alongside, with brighter whites and richer colors, but whether it's better comes down to personal preference. With HDR, it's unlikely our opinions will matter -- production companies can create "HDR video" in post-production with relative ease, so we could see it rapidly introduced as a marketing tool.

Netflix assures us its guidelines for certification will be clarified by the program's spring launch window, when it'll begin communicating to consumers what the certification stands for. It does say the guidelines will be "fluid," as what users want and need from their TVs in 2015 may be different in 2016, but the Recommended logo will always mean that viewers will be getting what Netflix considers the best experience from their TV.