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The Secret Sauce Behind Netflix's Hit, "House Of Cards": Big Data

By analyzing its subscribers’ preferences, Netflix can be sure its original content will find an audience. But is that a good thing?

House of Cards, Netflix’s first foray into original programming, is currently the most-watched show in the service’s library. But that probably hasn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone at Netflix. Back in 2011, before the company made its bid, it looked at the show, examined its subscriber data, and determined that it would, in fact, be a hit. It’s one of the most sophisticated attempts at data-driven programming we’ve ever seen. And it’s a little bit worrisome.

When the program, a remake of a BBC miniseries, was up for purchase in 2011 with David Fincher and Kevin Spacey attached, the folks at Netflix simply looked at their massive stash of data. Subscribers who watched the original series, they found, were also likely to watch movies directed by David Fincher and enjoy ones that starred Kevin Spacey. Considering the material and the players involved, the company was sure that an audience was out there.

As Jonathan Friedland, Netflix’s communications director, told Wired in November, "We know what people watch on Netflix and we’re able with a high degree of confidence to understand how big a likely audience is for a given show based on people’s viewing habits." So you can bet that the data said it would be worth it for the company to revive Arrested Development, too.

But as the science of data-driven programming becomes more common—and more sophisticated—there is an obvious concern. Mainly that TV’s future hits might start resembling its past ones a little too closely. Over at Salon, Andrew Leonard considers some of the implications of TV in the era of Big Data:

The interesting and potentially troubling question is how a reliance on Big Data might funnel craftsmanship in particular directions. What happens when directors approach the editing room armed with the knowledge that a certain subset of subscribers are opposed to jump cuts or get off on gruesome torture scenes or just want to see blow jobs. Is that all we’ll be offered? We’ve seen what happens when news publications specialize in just delivering online content that maximizes page views. It isn’t always the most edifying spectacle. Do we really want creative decisions about how a show looks and feels to be made according to an algorithm counting how many times we’ve bailed out of other shows?

For years Netflix has been analyzing what we watched last night to suggest movies or TV shows that we might like to watch tomorrow. Now it is using the same formula to prefabricate its own programming to fit what it thinks we will like. Isn’t the inevitable result of this that the creative impulse gets channeled into a pre-built canal?

Thankfully, we’re not there yet. And in the case of House of Cards, Netflix’s certainty of the show’s success may have afforded the show’s producers even more creative latitude. But there are still limitations to the approach. Had it been around, Big Data probably could have told producers that a series about James Gandolfini playing a mob boss would be a winner. But there’s no way it would’ve given the green light to Twin Peaks.

Read the full Salon piece here.

[Image: Cards via Shutterstock]