When Amazon's Fire TV team began pushing out a new interface to select streaming devices in December, it wasn't just aiming for a cosmetic refresh. The new Fire TV experience, which is scheduled to launch on Fire TV Stick 4K and Fire TV Cube devices next month, promises to rein in some of the sprawl caused by Fire TV's last major UI change. However, the new changes also show how hard it can be for TV platforms to do the right thing for consumers without offending content partners.
The idea was simple enough: Instead of making consumers browse bland lists of apps, forcing them to choose whether they'd want to spend their evening with Netflix or Hulu, Amazon's Fire TV team wanted them to get straight to the movies and shows that matter. That's why in late 2016, the company was first among the major smart TV platform providers to introduce what's known in the industry as a content-first user experience, with rows and rows of shows and movies — from various streaming apps — directly on the TV home screen.
It's an idea that has since been embraced by many in the industry. Google, for instance, took some major cues from the Fire TV interface for the home screen of its new Chromecast streaming dongle. TV makers like Vizio and LG also feature content recommendations directly on the home screen these days.
However, the world of streaming media has also changed a lot over the past four years. Whereas people might have had one or two streaming subscriptions back in 2016, they now have four or five, and free services like Pluto, Tubi and Amazon's own IMDb TV are getting a lot more usage as well. Put recommendations for all of those services on one screen, and it quickly starts to feel like an avalanche.
"We never imagined this is where we would be today," acknowledged Amazon Fire TV VP and GM Sandeep Gupta. "The experience was overwhelming at times."
To rein in the chaos, Fire TV now has a simplified navigation bar that includes access to a user's favorite apps, as well as dedicated sections for content that won't require any extra payments (think ad-supported shows and existing subscriptions) as well as a simplified search experience that allows someone to browse streaming results by categories. Fire TV devices are also getting systemwide profiles to personalize the experience for every household member, and a new feature called app previews that highlights content for specific apps even before a consumer opens them. "This was a pretty radical redesign for us," Gupta said.
On the surface, all of those changes seem sensible. But industry insiders will quickly tell you that any change to a consumer's discovery path can be a minefield for TV platform providers. Take Google's new Chromecast device, for example: Together with a new interface for Android TV, the search giant also introduced a systemwide watchlist as a way to bookmark individual shows and movies across all streaming services. Weeks after launching the device, Netflix forced Google to exclude its originals from the watchlist; the streaming service would rather have its subscribers use the list in its own app, where titles don't compete with those of other services.
Amazon's new interface may not provoke quite the same backlash, but there are some possible stumbling blocks. One example: Netflix, Disney+ and Hulu all have introduced their own profiles over the years. Amazon is now offering third-party services an API to tie these app-specific profiles to Fire TV profiles, which would do away with an extra step whenever you open a participating app. But it's far from certain that everyone will play ball.
"Integrating with partners takes time," Gupta said. "It takes several years to bring partners along."
The best way to get partners to embrace new features was to show them how they benefit, Gupta added. And at least this far, the new UI seems to be working: Previously, users spent most of their time on the home screen. Now, they're spending more time exploring recommendations in other areas, which ultimately leads to increased watch time, according to Gupta.
He cited Hulu as a success story of a deeper integration into the TV UI. The Disney-owned service wasn't among the launch partners when Amazon first unveiled a live TV guide for Fire TV in 2019. After Hulu finally did integrate its live TV programming into the guide, it saw watch time for this type of programming on Fire TV increase significantly.
Amazon first rolled out the new Fire TV interface to the 2020 versions of its Fire TV Stick and Fire TV Stick Lite in December. Next month, the UI will come to Fire TV Stick 4K, Fire TV Cube (first and second gen) and Fire TV (third gen, pendant design); the company plans to extend it to TVs with built-in Fire TV OS and older streaming adapters in the coming months.
The company is also working to further tweak the UI on devices that have already received it. At the beginning of February, it added dynamic row ordering, which changes the presentation of content on the home screen based on user behavior. And ultimately, Amazon also wants to use the new and improved personalization to better integrate plugs for new streaming services into its interface, making them feel less like up-sell prompts.
"The difference between ads and recommendations is relevance," Gupta said. "I think that's where profiles play a big role."
Correction: This post was updated Feb. 17 to reflect that Hulu watch time increased significantly once it integrated its live TV programming into the guide.