Blog: House of Cards: Big Data and New Expectations

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Successful entertainment tends to follow a formula. Lots of sex + lots of action + lots of celebrities = lots of money. It’s a broad formula designed to appeal to a broad audience. Recently, Netflix, one of the largest distributors of entertainment content, decided to expand its brand and try its luck in content creation. Netflix knew it had a lot going for it; its audience spans the globe with 33 million subscribers. But more importantly, Netflix could use the data it had gathered about its subscribers’ preferences to design content specifically for them. Rather than having to appeal to the entire general public, Netflix would use big data to tailor its entertainment specifically to its audience, selecting actors, producers and subject matters chosen specifically to satisfy the Netflix community.

Netflix is no different than any other modern company; like a chess player, it tries to anticipate its customers’ moves and preferences. The company knows the likes and dislikes of each subscriber by tracking what programs we watch and how long, how frequent, and when we watch them. We make a move by watching a film, and then Netflix makes a move by suggesting to us what films we might like to watch next. Knowing its users is good for content distribution, and, as Netflix rightly judged, it is also good for content creation.

When Netflix decided to develop its own made-for-digital series, the company was able to access its enormous amounts of consumer data to tailor its entertainment specifically to the likes of its consumers. When viewing its options, an American version of the British political drama “House of Cards” was a clear choice because the British version was very popular among Netflix subscribers. Kevin Spacey movies had always done well as had movies produced by David Fincher, producer of “The Social Network.” This combination led to Netflix’s first original content, the U.S. version of “House of Cards,” a dark and pessimistic look into the world of American politics.

Netflix’s tailored formula worked. In less than a month the company's 33 million subscribers had turned the series into the most streamed piece of content in the U.S. and 40 other countries. Its popularity was quick and pervasive, penetrating people’s social networks almost as soon as the show premiered on February 1. My friends and family, online and offline, were abuzz about it. Most people I talked with watched all 13 hour-long episodes in less than a week and familial bookworms were replacing their daily reading with episodes of “House of Cards.” Even the show’s advertising was targeted using big data. Netflix subscribers were shown one of ten different trailers for the show depending on the subscriber’s viewing profile.

Would “House of Cards” have seen the same success if developed for the general public? It’s unlikely. Smart storylines have lost traction on television. As we become more distracted, our television programming has reflected that by dumbing down its content so we can follow the storylines while simultaneously engaging in a multitude of digital activities. There is definitely a demand for this kind of background-noise entertainment, which cable television has been happy to meet. But this has led to a hole in the market for intelligent, engaging programming. Attempting to fill this kind of hole is a risky move when you don’t know your viewers well. A show like “House of Cards” only works if viewers have a certain level of background knowledge about the U.S. government and political system. Netflix can gauge that level of knowledge by analyzing the content that their viewers watch on their system, TV shows and movies that someone else spent the money to develop. Channels like HBO and Showtime can only collect this kind of data on their viewers’ knowledge of subject matters through expensive trial and error. The structure of Netflix maximizes the company’s big data advantage and minimizes its financial risk.

But even with the risk minimized, Netflix produced a made-for-digital series with superb acting and engaging storylines. Simply put, the series is better than it had to be. It went beyond its winning formula to produce very high quality entertainment, which shows respect for the medium of digital entertainment and, most important, for its viewers.

Netflix hopes to replicate its “House of Cards” success with its production of the fourth season of the cult hit TV series “Arrested Development,” premiering this Spring. Arrested Development is an interesting choice because the show, while incredibly popular among a certain demographic, was canceled in 2006 for low ratings. But Netflix’s choice to produce the fourth season as their second original made-for-digital series was no doubt informed by big data, proving that what is unpopular with the general public might be a big hit with a particular set of viewers.

There are many valid concerns surrounding big data. These digital mirrors can and will likely be used to persuade us in such subtle ways that we are caught with our guard down. Our right to privacy is precarious in the age of big data, as companies can buy and sell digital profiles of us that, with a little analysis, can reveal things about ourselves we would never have voluntarily shared. But one positive outcome might be raising the bar on entertainment, which, at its best, acts as a form of journalism, asking the questions and broaching the topics in which we as a nation, and a world, should be engaging.

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Camille Koué is pursuing her master’s degree in Communication, Culture & Technology at Georgetown University. She is focused on the intersection of technology, infrastructure and design and the effects these domains have on human relations, civic engagement and community development. A native of Oakland, Calif., she graduated from American University with degrees in Visual Media, Justice and Spanish Language.