Two weeks ago, Netflix released a trailer for "House of Cards," the David Fincher/Kevin Spacey series that will premiere exclusively on the streaming site on February 1st, marking its first big foray into original programming (following a kind of soft launch with the Norwegian coproduction "Lilyhammer" earlier this year). The company has several new and returning shows in the hopper — the resurrected "Arrested Development," Eli Roth's "Hemlock Grove" and Jenji Kohan's women-in-prison dramedy "Orange is the New Black" — but the way in which it has approached creating its own programming may be just as interesting as the projects it has chosen.
Speaking to KCRW back in May, Roth's "Hemlock Grove" collaborator Brian McGreevy compared Netflix's use of data to determine the viewing interests of its 29 million subscribers to "sabermetrics," saying "it's less about the whims of someone at the moment and whether or not the executive is having acid reflux when you're pitching." Roth added that "I had a very high rating for Netflix, so they were really happy to have me on board." And in a Wired feature that went up this week, reporter Roberto Baldwin takes a closer look at whether Netflix's use of math and information on past streaming habits is really revolutionizing the way TV series are developed.
While networks traditionally order a show based on whether it likes a pilot, Netflix ordered two full seasons (26 episodes) of House of Cards without seeing a single scene. It reportedly bid more than $100 million to secure first rights to the show, outbidding HBO and AMC because it is utterly convinced the show will be a big hit.
Why? Because it is counting on data mining and algorithms to provide an edge. The company knows how many people are watching Kevin Spacey and David Fincher movies and it knows how many viewers watch political thrillers. If that audience is large enough, getting exclusive access to House of Cards makes sense.
“We know what people watch on Netflix and we’re able with a high degree of confidence to understand how big a likely audience is for a given show based on people’s viewing habits,” company communications boss Jonathan Friedland said. “We want to continue to have something for everybody. But as time goes on, we get better at selecting what that something for everybody is that gets high engagement.”
So they're just giving the people what they want, and what they want (and seem willing to pay for) is Fincher and Spacey. The process sure sounds like the future, though as other more skeptical industry figures quoted later in the piece point out, Netflix is still basically banking on name talent and established properties ("House of Cards" is a remake of a 1990 BBC miniseries) like many execs at traditional TV channels. The company is under pressure to make a splash with these first series and to establish itself as the equivalent of a cable network in terms of being a go-to place for quality programming, to prove that viewers really don't perceive a difference between shows made by Netflix and shows just being licensed by it.
Like many networks making their first play in the world of scripted series, these initial projects are all about finding a breakout. Where Netflix's use of viewer data will get really interesting is in the next round or two of programming (assuming they happen), when projects could be more about serving specific niches than latching on to big names. Currently the Danish dark comedy "Klown" and "The Twilight Zone" are listed as popular when I log in — how the particular tastes of the streaming viewership, which one guesses skews younger and more web savvy than the average broadcast network viewer, differ from the overall TV watching population, could make for some interesting programming choices.