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Netflix’s New Ratings System Is a Terrible Idea

The company is ditching its star ratings in April for a thumbs up/down approach. That's bad news for anyone eager to discover great movies and TV.

thumbs rating

Netflix’s new thumbs up/down approach will go into effect next month.

T. Kaiser/REX/Shutterstock

Whatever the future of entertainment may hold, it’s reasonable to assume Netflix will play some role in determining it. The company is at the forefront of defining home viewing habits and the ways in which audiences can discover its library of movies and television. It’s a fickle process, one that doesn’t favor the discovery of edgier content. So it was particularly dispiriting to learn that sometime in April, Netflix will abandon its five-star ratings in favor of a thumbs up/thumbs down approach.

“Five stars feels very yesterday now,” said Netflix VP of product Todd Yellin in a press briefing. He went on to suggest that star ratings hurt its business investments in catalogs of titles, noting that “bubbling up the stuff people actually want to watch is super important.”

However, that logic holds only if you believe the sole important metric is giving the audience exactly what it wants — and nothing else. No surprising new experiences that might expose them to fresh storytelling, genres, filmmakers, or sensibilities they never knew. It serves complacency: Like those Adam Sandler movies? Here’s more! Hate ’em? Here’s some other comedies instead.

The thumbs up/down system has been a negative force in the critical landscape ever since Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert first applied it from the couch of their television show nearly 40 years ago. At first, the metric initially became an asset for propelling smaller releases to commercial heights: Two thumbs up became synonymous with “must-see,” and played a crucial role in movies like “My Dinner With Andre” going from obscure arthouse material to overnight hits.

“My Dinner With Andre”

Over the years, however, this binary approach has encouraged reductive assessments that depressed the value of nuanced opinion. It’s that same impulse that has led to our current age of Rotten/Fresh polarities determining a movie’s fate with the ease of a flipped coin. By judging any culture through the limited range of binary possibilities, it’s always one step away from outright dismissal. (At IndieWire, we pair our reviews with letter grades ranging from A+ to F, which at least allows for more variability.)

As with many Netflix announcements, this news doesn’t tell the full story. While users may feel empowered by the opportunity to flick their thumb in approval or condemnation, the company has a lot more data under the hood: Duration of viewing, geographical habits, time of the year, and many other details fuel its ever-secretive recommendation algorithms.

The thumbs up/down approach also provides terrible optics for a company in the business of supporting the future of movies, one that has recently gone into business with no less than Martin Scorsese. It suggests that there’s no value in divisive material — the kind of movie that, say, you love and your friend hates, and you stay up all night drinking wine and arguing about it. (Nobody wins; that’s the point.) By depriving viewers of the opportunity to broaden their range, Netflix denies an essential aspect of the maturation process for the critically engaged viewer.

In a practical defense of Netflix’s reasoning in Vulture, Kevin Lincoln cites a number of titles from the company’s library that have received an aggregate rating of 2.75 or lower, including high-profile comedy specials from Amy Schumer and Chelsea Handler, Sandler movies produced as part of its partnership with the actor, and so-called “well-reviewed film festival premieres” like “Burning Sands.”

It’s true that the negative star ratings for some of these titles may be the unfair result of fickle users harboring cruel agendas. (Just think of what an army of alt-right loonies might do to “Dear White People” when it lands on the platform next month.) In that sense, it may be wise for Netflix to keep those ratings private.

But if it uses the thumbs up/down approach to drive its algorithm, it won’t give audiences the opportunity to expand their interests. By only suggesting titles based on what you’ve liked, Netflix limits the possibility that you might stumble upon something you never knew you’d enjoy in the first place. Just because you gave a thumbs up to every movie directed by Steven Spielberg available on Netflix (currently, there are three of them) doesn’t mean you won’t get something out of the lesbian romance “Blue is the Warmest Color,” which Spielberg awarded the Palme d’Or when he headed the jury at Cannes in 2013.

Blue Is the Warmest Color

“Blue Is the Warmest Color”

Wild Bunch/Sundance Selects

“Blue is the Warmest Color” (available in Netflix’s “LGBT Dramas” section) looks completely different from anything in the Spielberg oeuvre, which contains very little sexuality at all, let alone queer coming-of-age stories. But it turns out that Spielberg knows an ambitious piece of filmmaking when he sees it, even if it’s not in synch with his own directorial sensibilities. Why should we believe audience members are any different?

Years ago, Netflix actually paid for film critics to help single out valuable titles in its catalogue and explain their significance. In an age defined by content overload, that curatorial approach has become more valuable than ever. By contrast, the “like” and “dislike” buttons are dangerously volatile switches, particularly once they wind up on a global platform like Netflix. The company holds the keys to changing the way the world sees the moving image. And now, with  the ease a single vote, it could change the way people don’t see it, too.

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Comments

FITLBOX

Roger Ebert would roll in his grave.

Kate Late

Spot on. Thumbs up / Thumbs down leaves no room for any nuance. I called Netflix to let them know I though this was a terrible idea. Everybody should do the same. If enough people call, perhaps they will reconsider.

    Deborah

    I agree. I won’t be eating a lot of them.

Marc Schenker

They already cheated on the star ratings. Now this. Netflix is a company that succeeds in spite of itself.

JonathanM

QUESTION: How will the results be displayed? Will the majority consensus be displayed simply as thumbs up or down, or will percentages be displayed Netflix’ customers?
Fortunately, imdb ratings are still out there.

Jb

The general public shouldn’t be voting with stars or thumbs. The majority just hate vote anyway. The type of people that will watch 90m film and vote low just cuz they didn’t like 3 seconds of it shouldn’t be “helping” me decide what to watch next.

Nardog

The number of stars on Netflix is not the average of the votes from users but rather how much the algorithm thinks you’re going to like the movie based on your profile. So the current system does already give you exactly what (it thinks) you want. Compare the rating for the same movie with your friends to see for yourself. And even if it were the average, movies the majority like or dislike would most likely get unjustly high or low ratings and divisive ones mediocre numbers anyway, so I don’t see why such a system could potentially help one find hidden gems. It’s just inevitable when you have a large enough number of people voting (if you’ve seen the ratings on Amazon you know what I’m talking about), so I don’t know if the nuance this article claims will be lost exists in the first place.

    Frank Miller

    But that isn’t true, is it? Take the latest Amy Schumer special. It was a single star in the old rating system. Now it’s a 92% match for me. That doesn’t add up.

Amoeba

Netflix should adopt something like Facebook’s expanded “like” reactions. I know it’s gimmicky, but it provides more than just a binary response. It can visually let people know if they liked or loved, cried or laughed, hated or disliked a certain movie. Qualitative metric rather than quantitative.

Brokenleg

It’s funny since someone mentioned this in the comments earlier, but Netflix has said that the ratings are an algorithm based on what it assume you’ll like based on your viewing and rating habits, but they always fail to mention that other viewers ratings do (often drastically) effect how Netflix shows you a star rating. An example of this is the new Sandler movies. As mentioned above they had a low star rating, and I refused to watch them as I loved the old Sandler movies and they gradually got worse and worse and it just became sadder and sadder to watch him try. However the star ratings on my Netflix account plummeted from 5 to 1 star in the course of the month it came out. Now with the new rating system I have an 89% match with “The Cobbler.” Which was one and a half stars on my account only days ago.

It really seems like this new system might give you the opportunity to try new films, but it’s also a blatant cover their ass move since it’s obvious that a lot of their new content is getting reviewed poorly by their own customers. Now it’s back to finding a movie and immediately looking it up on IMDB because I don’t have an ounce of trust in this new system. Designed for my better viewing experience, or for them to possibly get some more views on their terrible new media to make it look like they didn’t make a huge mistake?

Tryan Hard

This is an obvious ploy to get people to watch more of their content. Think about this: 2.6 to 5 stars is a thumbs up. I never watch content unless it is at least 3 or I don’t care (bromance). All because poor little Amy Schumer’s comedy was total trash and got one star?! Now all I see is a % match to what I like? WTF. Sorry, but your stupid @ss algorithms will never get my likes correct and never have. Now I have to look up reviews online for every show? Amazon Prime is going to gain a lot of new customers. Netflix, this is pure BS move to force us to watch low rated content that you are producing. But, it’s not hard to rate shows with stars and this thumbs up is WAY too over simplified. I’m one out the door and am getting even closer to just dropping Netflix altogether. Trust me, your competitors will take advantage of your stupid move.

    Benjamin

    I completely agree with your remarks. This new system is terrible for the consumer. Stars give you a chance to decide if you wnat to invest time or not into a film.

    Jim

    100% correct

Sungwook Choe

the up or down rating serves no useful purpose, either for me or for other viewers. The new % based recommendation by Netflix likewise serves no purpose. What does 98% match mean? In genre or in quality? Neflix has destroyed a valuable asset for no reason and no benefit to anyone. What a waste.

Peter DM

This is a terrible, terrible system. The % figures that are showing up on my profile are wildly, absurdly inappropriate. And I totally agree with the article above – Netflix has, at times, been a great way to discover new, unknown content. Now it’s set up to pander to popular taste – there’s already enough of that in pop culture.

The rating are now completely useless – have to check on RT or IMDb.

jesse glover

I like how it says the stars rating system is hurting netflix due to all the low scores, well that is because the movies yall show suck ass

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