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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]

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  • Andy Danger Brown

    How is this different from a Network Producer leaning over the Director's shoulder in the editing suite and saying no to this and yes to that. At least now the advice will be right!

  • James

    This is kind of stupid to me. Big Data provided the insight to use David Fincher and Kevin Spacey? Because people like them and watch programing that they're in? Wouldn't that be applicable to almost ANY major star or director. Is Kevin Spacey particularly popular right now? How is this any different than the current Hollywood system? Buy a known property, develop it for TV, attach a know director and actor. Make show. What new data was used?????

  • Jim

    You think because they have access to past data that television will become MORE derivative that it already is?  Is that even possible?  Who takes real risks anymore?  HBO?  That's premium content that is outside the scope of any of these discussions.  This is honestly a worry that absolutely ignores the last 20 years of regular television programming, where the rule has been 1 network get's a hit, every single channel now has a show in that genera for the next 5 years.  This is a rubbish article, Neflix has more data, they can make better decisions, that's it.

  • Douglas Carpiaux

    I think access to a tool like Big Data is a fantastic opportunity for a deeper understanding, but the real-world uses of it will more often than not fall short of that ideal.  I personally prefer to gain understanding at a smaller qualitative level and let larger quantitative data validate or deny those insights.

  • Rob Kohr

    Netflix purchased the rights for Twin Peaks to appear in its catalog, so they know that the market is there for such far out flixs. 

    Don't assume that big data will lead to a homogenization of content (like cable tv). If anything it can show how fringe content can be successful. They have an infinite amount of channels available to them now, and things they produce does not need to satisfy the majority.

  • jeremiahnelson

    The other way to look at this is that newer, riskier options could be enabled by having data to show that a large enough base is available for consumption of the media. 

  • MediaDude

    That "pre-built canal" existed long before Netflix began mining our preferences. Movies and television shows tell stories. All good stories are reflections of the monomyth. Creating programs based on big data won't change the human narrative.

  • Joel A. Montilla

    identifying trends and developing solutions to them, a great approach - the bar has clearly been raised

  • Mckennaweb

    Collecting and analyzing viewer data to drive network programming has long been considered defacto to achieve market dominance. Nothing wrong with that. As a viewer we decide what we watch. The idea of our choices becoming programmed for us is problematic. The more ideas and artists to choose from the better. It seems that to develop formulaic shows could taint the process.