The Netflix Queue: How's it Work?

Ah, Netflix. Killer of brick-and-mortar video stores; red-jacketed savior of people having a crappy day who come home to find that at least there's a decent flick waiting for them. These days, the rent-by-mail company offers around 100,000 tiles, sends out some 1.9 million discs per day (another 10,000 movies are available for instant download) - and passed the billion-discs-shipped mark last February.

And the outfit is quite efficient: According to the company, some 96% of customers clicking around the site receive their movies the next day. This basically means, barring some major mail-ending catastrophe in your ZIP code (in which case, hoarding nonperishable food and bottled water may be a more pressing concern than seeing Will Smith's most recent magnum opus), any disc ordered on a Monday morning will most likely appear in your mailbox by Tuesday - unless all copies are at far-away distribution hubs, which occasionally adds a day or two to the delivery date.

But the DVD-rental-by-mail company has stirred up quite a kerfuffle recently when it ejected its Queue Profiles function (the feature that allowed you to keep separate wanted-DVD lists within the same account - ideal for multi-person households). [UPDATE: After this story was published, Netflix decided to reinstate its Queue Profiles, stating, "You spoke and we listened. We are keeping Profiles. Thank you for all the calls and emails telling us how important Profiles are."]

This got us wondering: Exactly how does their whole DVD queue system work? How does the Netflix master-cylinder determine whether you'll get a new release first or last; whether you'll get the "long wait" movie at the top of your want-list next or the "short wait" flick at the bottom?

We asked the people at Netflix how they really determine who gets that popular flick first, how they anticipate demand, and why they eliminated the household peace-preserving Profiles feature. They took a moment to "queue us in."

How They Anticipate Demand:

Your typical movie buff may look like a most passive creature, but deny a few hundred thousand of them the latest flick, and they can riot with surprising speed and force. That's why Netflix judges demands for films way in advance, using some of the following tools:

Box Office: When the latest summer-blockbuster spectacular starring a slumming Oscar-winning actor makes $54 million over the weekend, Netflix takes that into account when ordering that movie's stockpile of discs a few months down the road. As for that obscure film that made roughly $17.50 during its run at the local art-house theater - let's just say Netflix won't be rushing to order a hundred thousand copies.

Your Input: The Saved DVD Queue is where you can put in requests for films with home-release date that are months in the future or outright unknown. That little list's raison d'etre isn't just to torture you with the idea that John Woo's The Killer will never, ever be re-released on any sort of disc-like object in our lifetime; Netflix uses it to help gauge demand months before a particular release actually sees the light of day (or Blu-ray).

Why You Wait:

Of course, sometimes demand can't be anticipated; sometimes, a movie in your queue will still have a Short or Long Wait. If two people click and order such an ultra-popular disc at the exact same moment . . . who'll be the first to open their mailbox and see that vaunted red envelope?

Turns out the order in which people receive a new release depends on a set of algorithms, built on an analysis of rental patterns - and with fairness in mind, according to company reps.

While Netflix wouldn't get too specific with exactly how the algorithm works ("company secret"), they were willing to divulge the factors that do and don't make a difference:

First to Call it: Say you're the first person in all of Netflixland to place a movie in your Saved (or regular) Queue. Naturally, you'll get that flick before everyone else, yes? No. The early bird doesn't necessarily get the movie first.

Demand: The more people who want a movie, the longer it can take to get.

Activity: Unlike the traveling salesman who earns frequent-flier miles, the number of films you get over a certain period (versus other members) works against you when it comes to your status on the new-release list. The more you work your membership, the less likely you are to get the new stuff.

Your New-Release History: The one factor that the algorithm weighs far more heavily than all others is the number of new releases Netflix has been sending you. Those who've, say, received six shiny New Releases over the past month, may find themselves supplanted by someone who's only received two. So the fewer new flicks you've gotten, the more likely you are to rise to the top of the wait list.

Why They Killed the Multi-Queue:

It used to be that a single address could establish multiple queues (called Profiles) - if you were an action-movie buff, you wouldn't have to worry about your romantic comedy-loving roommate sprinkling your carefully tended list of Schwarzenegger hits with Kate Hudson saccharine.

Netflix plans to end all that, starting in September. "We decided to streamline," says Steve Swasey, Netflix's vice president of corporate communications, adding that the elimination of such a "minor feature" would help the company continue offering its mail and downloadable movies at a lower price.

Some bloggers have been a bit nonplussed about the idea. "My wife was happy, since (thanks to her separate Profile) she could rent movies like, oh, 27 Dresses, without having me shove them into the bottom of the queue," Ben 'The Gadget Hound' Patterson recently wrote on Yahoo! Tech.

In other words, the single queue means a bit of compromise over what'll be playing on any given night on the flat-screen - or else finding a cohabiter who loves big, fiery explosions almost as much as you do.

Still, at least now you know how the queue works. Now try to use this knowledge for good, not evil.

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