The hit Netflix original series, “House of Cards,” stars Kevin Spacey as Congressman Frank Underwood and Robin Wright as his wife, Claire Underwood.

Netflix , via AP

Netflix mines data from its millions of users to guide choices about original programming.

Paul Sakuma, Associated Press file

In 'House of Cards,' Netflix gives viewers what they want

  • Article by: DAVID CARR
  • New York Times
  • February 27, 2013 - 2:54 PM


In the television business, there is no such thing as a sure thing. You can have a gold-plated director, a bankable star and a popular concept and still, it’s just a roll of the dice.

Or is it?

In any business, the ability to see into the future is the killer app, and Netflix may be getting close with “House of Cards.” The series, directed by David Fincher, starring Kevin Spacey and based on a popular British series, is already the most streamed piece of content in the United States and 40 other countries, according to Netflix. The spooky part about that? Executives at the company knew it would be a hit before anyone shouted “action.”

Netflix, which has 27 million subscribers in the nation and 33 million worldwide, ran the numbers. It already knew that a healthy share had streamed the work of Fincher, the director of “The Social Network,” from beginning to end. And films featuring Spacey had always done well, as had the British version of “House of Cards.” With those three circles of interest, Netflix was able to find a Venn diagram intersection that suggested that buying the series would be a very good bet on original programming.

The role of ‘big data’

Big bets are now being informed by big data, and no one knows more about audiences than Netflix. A third of the downloads on the Internet during peak periods on any given day are devoted to streamed movies from the service, according to Sandvine, a networking provider. And last year, by some estimates, more people watched movies streamed online than on physical DVDs.

Film and television producers have always used data, holding previews for focus groups and logging the results, but as a technology company that distributes and now produces content, Netflix has mind-boggling access to consumer sentiment in real time. According to GigaOm, Netflix looks at 30 million “plays” a day, including when you pause, rewind and fast-forward, 4 million ratings by Netflix subscribers, 3 million searches as well as the time of day when shows are watched and on what devices.

Jonathan Friedland, the company’s chief communications officer, said, “Because we have a direct relationship with consumers, we know what people like to watch and that helps us understand how big the interest is going to be for a given show. It gave us some confidence that we could find an audience for a show like ‘House of Cards.’ ”

In addition, movies and TV shows on the service are annotated with hundreds of tags — metadata descriptors — inserted by viewers commissioned to describe the talent, the action, the tone and the genre, among many, many other things. In the past, those tags were used to recommend other shows from the long tail of content on the service, essentially building profiles based on the preferences of individual subscribers. But now Netflix is commissioning original content because it knows what people want before they do. “There are 33 million different versions of Netflix,” said Joris Evers, the company’s director of global corporate communications.

Based on that information, Netflix bought “House of Cards.” It is also producing new episodes of “Arrested Development,” and in April, it will begin streaming episodes of “Hemlock Grove,” a horror-thriller based on a novel of the same name.

Netflix has always used data to decide which shows to license, and now that expertise is extended to the first-run. And there was not one trailer for “House of Cards,” there were many. Fans of Spacey saw trailers featuring him, women watching “Thelma and Louise” saw trailers featuring the show’s female characters, and serious film buffs saw trailers that reflected Fincher’s touch.

A flurry of buzz

It is impossible to say that “House of Cards” is a hit because Netflix, to the consternation of some of its more traditional competitors, is not participating in ratings. But social media is thick with mentions of both the new programming and the new paradigm. The show made the front page of the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, and was on the cover of Emmy magazine, a good omen for its awards future. And when your price is as low as Netflix’s — $7.99 a month for streaming — a flurry of buzz can pull plenty of people off the fence.

While careers and entire networks have been made and lost based on the mysterious alchemy of finding a hit, Netflix seems to be making it look easy, or at least making it a product of logic and algorithms as opposed to tradition and instinct.

A cable executive who has talked to Amazon says that its Prime service, a nascent effort to get into original content, will also lean hard on data-driven approaches to determine its programming. The executive, who asked not to be identified because the discussions were private, said it would change the way that business operates sooner than people thought.

“I think it is a little hysterical to say that big data will win the day now and forever, but it is clear that having a very molecular understanding of user data is going to have a big impact on how things happen in television,” he said.

Others aren’t so sure. John Landgraf, who, as president and general manager of FX Networks, has had a good run at the channel in finding hits, said he thought numbers-crunching would never have predicted the success of “The Sopranos,” “South Park” and “Mad Men,” among others, including hits he has said yes to, like “Sons of Anarchy.”

“Data can only tell you what people have liked before, not what they don’t know they are going to like in the future,” he said. “A good high-end programmer’s job is to find the white spaces in our collective psyche that aren’t filled by an existing television show,” adding, those choices are made “in a black box that data can never penetrate.”

Netflix insists that actual creative decisions will remain in the hands of the creators. “We don’t get super-involved on the creative side,” Evers said. “We hire the right people and give the freedom and budget to do good work.”

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