In the old days people baked cookies. Now the market is dominated by specially-formulated packaged food that's engineered to fall right into a U-shaped graph that measures bliss. Perhaps you could say the same thing about content. In the old days, people came up with movies and shows by combining great ingredients with a hunch. Now, it's scientific. I'm twelve out of thirteen episodes into Netflix's "House of Cards," drawn in by the smooth credits music, arty feel, and sordid look at political scandal. According to recent articles in the New York Times and Salon, this wasn't
just a well-put together show hitting it big, but due to an analysis of Netflix viewer habits that ensured that "House of Cards" would have the broadest appeal.
"House of Cards" is based on a 1990 BBC series (that did well on Netflix), stars Kevin Spacey (an actor who tracks well on Netflix), and has episodes directed by David Fincher (drawing in Netflix cinephiles). It's an addictive, adult-geared drama, with some episodes ending on cliffhangers that make it almost impossible not to click "next episode." That's something Netflix tracks too. In the old days, a test screening might measure the laughs and gasps of an audience, adding beats when necessary to accommodate them. Now, Netflix measures when people pause episodes, and especially when they don't return to them.
I might have taken an anti-Big Brother stance on this information, if it weren't for the fact that "House of Cards" is so good. It doesn't feel formulaic, but daring and innovative. (Unless it's just scientifically pushing those "daring" and "innovative" buttons right up to the point where it knows it will start to alienate viewers). Major networks air at least half a dozen new shows each season, and most of them fail. There's something to be said for the fact that Netflix is currently batting one for one. I'm sure there's data to parse when it come to movies too. If a movie plays better on Netflix than in theatres, what does that mean? In passing during a recent Q&A, a filmmaker mentioned that Netflix doesn't release information about how often a movie is viewed to the filmmaker or distributor. I imagine that releasing that information could eventually become a bargaining point in acquisition discussions, if it hasn't already.
Whenever a mindless superhero picture releases, people bemoan that studios are catering to the lowest common denominator, and neglecting other audiences. Maybe the studios are accurately playing to their audience, but maybe looking at a different set of data could reveal other truths. It takes a film like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, for example, for many to realize that boomers are now a huge part of the moviegoing public. What plays well on Netflix doesn't always play well in movie theatres, but within this data there is a possibility to create great television and movies that also pass the "numbers test."