The Technology Behind Netflix’s ‘Chelsea’ Talk Show

When Chelsea Handler tapes an episode of her new Netflix talk show three days a week, she isn’t just talking to a live studio audience. Each taping of “Chelsea” also gets live streamed to a select audience of experts on dirty words, drug-use references and other offbeat humor.

Their job is to figure out how to make sense of Handler’s jokes in the 20 languages that Netflix is translating the show into, and fast: Netflix is releasing each episode of “Chelsea” to an audience in over 190 countries simultaneously less than 34 hours after each taping. It’s unheard of in traditional television, and it’s definitely a departure from Netflix’s usual approach, which is why the company has been tweaking everything from translation to file encoding.

Some of these tweaks, which Netflix detailed on its blog Tuesday, have been long in the making. The company has long worked to shorten the time it takes to prepare movies and TV shows and get them ready for streaming. A few years ago, Netflix often spent days to acquire, then inspect and convert each source file into the many different version it takes to stream with different bandwidth requirements to different devices.

More recently, Netflix began to slice each and every video source file into small chunks, and then have many servers work in parallel on each of these slices. This has helped to cut the actual inspection and encoding to as little as half an hour.

Altogether, Netflix now allocates four hours to upload each “Chelsea” episode from the show’s production studio to its servers, inspect and encode the files and then send them to the many thousand streaming servers Netflix is operating at major Internet providers around the world. What’s more, 90 minutes of those four hours are considered a safety cushion in case something goes wrong.

For “Chelsea,” Netflix has also tweaked its user interface. The company traditionally lists TV show episodes in chronological order. You start with episode one of season one of a show, and binge from there. As a talk show, “Chelsea” is a lot more timely, so Netflix’s apps actually present the latest episode first. However, subscribers can actually binge in both directions, and either start with the first or the newest episode.

Finally, there are the dirty-word experts. They’re part of a team of more than 200 translators located around the world who are tasked with localizing “Chelsea” in 20 languages. To get this done in time, Netflix isn’t just live streaming the show as it is being taped. It also uses respeaking, which basically means that someone is repeating all of Chelsea Handler’s jokes in real time, but with perfect pronunciation, which then gets automatically transcribed by a computer. It’s a bit like someone who speaks perfect Siri, if you will.

These transcribed texts are then sent to the show’s translators, who — with helpful tips from the dirty-word experts on how to make sense of some of those saucier jokes and other hard-to-crack nuts — turn them into localized subtitles, and send them back to Netflix within 15 or so hours of the original taping. There, they get a final check, and then get sent out to those same streaming servers, ready to be consumed by a worldwide audience.

However, here’s the craziest thing about all of this: Netflix’s encoding technology and translation processes have become so fast that it could in theory release each episode of “Chelsea” up to 14 hours earlier. But that would mean that viewers in California would get to see it at 10 a.m., as opposed to midnight, when it is actually being released. And while Netflix aims to be a global television network, it can’t completely ignore the rules of TV schedules for a show like “Chelsea” in its current biggest market, the U.S. — and Ambien jokes just aren’t as funny right after your morning coffee.

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