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“House of Cards” and Our Future of Algorithmic Programming

Netflix knew why its original TV series would be a hit—based on data about the viewing habits of its 33 million users.
February 26, 2013

Plenty is being made about how Netflix made its first original TV series, House of Cards, available all at once online, and what that portends for the future of television consumption. But this is nothing new. People now expect to fit TV into their own schedules. It seems inevitable that on-demand entertainment will eventually eclipse weekly scheduled broadcasts.

The bigger, possibly darker omen for the future of TV is found in several articles about why Netflix decided to make its original programming bet on House of Cards, specifically, as opposed to some other series about, say, zombies or teenagers. It bought House of Cards based on what it knows about the viewing habits of its 33 million users—it knew which and how many users watch movies starring Kevin Spacey and the director David Fincher, and, through its tagging and recommendation system, how many sat through other similar political dramas. It has shown different trailers to people depending on their particular viewing habits, too.

David Carr in the New York Times tells the story of how Netflix felt confident it would be a hit: 

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.’ ”

The larger implications are apparent, as Carr goes onto explore. Netflix’s data about consumers has exploded at least 10 times as it has moved from DVD rental to a Web streaming model (see “Why There Won’t Be Another Netflix Prize”). As companies like Netflix, Google, and Amazon, which know more about our detailed watching habits, start to become forces in the creation of original programming, they could start also shaping creative decisions of directors and writers as well. 

Will screenplays some day be written to meet the whims of data-driven media streaming companies? Will an algorithm direct writers to produce content to appeal to niche audience profiles on Netflix? 

Probably it won’t be that drastic—in the news media world, Google search optimization and algorithmic editorial decisions about what to cover have shaped some news articles at some publications, but the computers haven’t taken over yet. But we’ve already covered how algorithms have started to write news stories, compose music, and pick hits in a broader range of creative industries (see “Can Creativity Be Automated?”).  Given the backstory of House of Cards, I’m pretty sure we’ll start to see at least segments of the TV and movie industry get swept up in this trend.

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