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From the Wire: Netflix Turns Art into Math

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by Matt Singer
February 4, 2013 2:58 PM
2 Comments
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'House of Cards'
'House of Cards'

Big Brother meet Big Data.

An eye-opening article by Andrew Leonard on Salon details how Netflix watches its customers as its customers watch Netflix. Every time you perform a distinct action with your Netflix Watch Instantly account, Leonard writes, you create "an event -- a discrete action that could be logged, recorded and analyzed." Could be and, apparently, is:

"As a consequence, the company knows more about our viewing habits than many of us realize. Netflix doesn’t know merely what we’re watching, but when, where and with what kind of device we’re watching. It keeps a record of every time we pause the action -- or rewind, or fast-forward -- and how many of us abandon a show entirely after watching for a few minutes."

So for example, when my wife and I tried Netflix's new original series, "House of Cards," over the weekend, Netflix logged the fact that we watched the show on our PS3 instead of our computer, and it noted that we plowed right through episodes 1 and 2, and then paused midway through episode 3 to walk our dog. That particular "event" was borne out of total necessity -- but, Leonard says, if enough users got tired of "House of Cards" around the same point (or had to walk their dog at that time of night), that's something Netflix would notice. And, he says, possibly use to shape their future programming:

"For at least a year, Netflix has been explicit about its plans to exploit its Big Data capabilities to influence its programming choices. 'House of Cards' is one of the first major test cases of this Big Data-driven creative strategy. For almost a year, Netflix executives have told us that their detailed knowledge of Netflix subscriber viewing preferences clinched their decision to license a remake of the popular and critically well regarded 1990 BBC miniseries. Netflix’s data indicated that the same subscribers who loved the original BBC production also gobbled down movies starring Kevin Spacey or directed by David Fincher. Therefore, concluded Netflix executives, a remake of the BBC drama with Spacey and Fincher attached was a no-brainer, to the point that the company committed $100 million for two 13-episode seasons."

On the one hand, this is a smart business model for a company intent on satisfying its clients. It's paying attention to what its viewers are watching the same way a movie theater keeps track of ticket sales or a video store keeps a chart of its most rented videos. I've never seen the original "House of Cards" but I love David Fincher and I was excited to see him reunite with his "Se7en" co-star Kevin Spacey. Whether my viewing habits on Netflix influenced their decision to bankroll the U.S. "House of Cards," I was primed to watch it. And so far, I've enjoyed it.

On the other hand, there's something vaguely unsettling about this notion of tracking (and judging) your viewing habits down to every time you hit pause to go to the bathroom. While it makes theoretical sense for Netflix to let their users guide their ventures into original content, it also sounds like an attempt to turn art into math; "(David Fincher + Kevin Spacey + property our customers enjoy) - weekly wait for new episodes = Paradigm shift in television viewership."

The end result of this model is essentially film criticism by a computer, which might process the data of thousands of subscribers, analyze when they started and stopped watching programs, and determine based on that analysis that, I don't know, "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" is a bad movie, because a lot of subscribers tune out after the first forty minutes (or ignore it entirely), but "After Porn Ends" is a masterpiece because viewers are really interested in it.

Again, to some extent this is just Netflix being incredibly smart. I track what articles do well with Criticwire's readers, and use that information as one determining factor of the blog's future content. But it's not my only guide, and if I focused a little too intensely on that, I'd only write about Batman movies and film critic death threats. Popularity does not necessarily equal quality -- and if the frequency with which people pause or stop movies and shows determines what gets funded in the future, we could be in for a lot of dumb, exciting garbage.

Read more "How Netflix is Turning Viewers into Puppets."

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More: From the Wire, NetFlix

2 Comments

  • robert | February 5, 2013 1:27 PMReply

    Sure, but that math equation has been applied since the beginning of TV and film, now we have more details and the equation has more variables - that's all.

  • Mike Radcliffe | February 4, 2013 3:35 PMReply

    There is something chilling about this. I originally thought this was going to be about the mechanical way Netflix processes your preferences and regurgitates them back to you on your "Watch Instantly" home screen and submenus. Sometimes picking what to watch can feel like my love of film filtered through a digitally-scrolling abacus, a fact confirmed when my choice to rate a selection as a "4" with a few reservations coincides with Netflix's prediction that I will rate it as a "3.6".

    That said, it bodes well that Netflix's calculating has lead them to a political drama from David Fincher starring Kevin Spacey rather than, say, a family comedy series from Dennis Dugan starring Rob Schneider. Also they've given Arrested Development back to us, banking on a careful logarithm of everyone on the internet clamoring for its return for the last seven years.

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