Case Study: House of Cards

Chances are you have heard of, seen an episode of, or binge-watched the Netflix original TV series House of Cards. The show is wildly popular among viewers and seems to be written well, cast well, and produced well. Anyone in the media & entertainment industry will tell you that piecing together a hit TV series is no easy task and that just one misplaced attribute could ruin the show’s credibility or likability entirely. So, in the case of House of Cards, did all of these elements just fall into place, making the show a hit just by luck?

Not at all.

The use of data by the television & film industries are nothing new. Studios and producers have held focus groups in the past as a litmus test for the popularity of an idea for a show. However now, technology savvy companies such as Netflix have real-time access to viewer sentiment. According to GigaOm, Netflix examines about 30 million plays per day, including every time a viewer pauses, fast forwards, rewinds, or rates a show. Because Netflix has a direct relationship with their consumers through this medium, they can understand and predict the level of interest for practically any show.

Munich-based data scientist Sebastian Wernicke illustrated how data can be used to produce a hit show in his TED Talk filmed at Cambridge. In the talk, he explains the intricacies of big data utilization for television and the rising interest of technology-driven companies to adopt similar techniques. One of the key examples he explicates is the application of a ratings curve in measuring the success of the show based on viewer ratings. As House of Cards was strategically created with data analysis methods, it scores a 9.1 on this scale. The reason for this is because while other companies like Amazon used a competition to determine the shows they would create, Netflix looked at the data it already had on its viewing platform. To summarize, pairing simple logic with the data provided far outweighs using outright data for make decision. Take a look at the TED talk below.

While entire networks have been created and destroyed on the secret sauce it takes to have a thrilling TV series, Netflix seems to make it look easy using logic and algorithms that feed on the data of its subscribers. Others are not as certain. John Landgraf, President of FX Networks, has been relatively successful and finding new hits and that numbers would have never predicted the success of shows like “The Sopranos” and “Mad Men”.

“Data can only tell you what people have liked before, not what they don’t know they are going to like in the future. A good high-end programmer’s job is to find the white spaces in the collective psyche that aren’t filled by an existing television show in a black box that data can never penetrate.” John Landgraf

The success of House of Cards is a great example of how big data can be used to make multi-million dollar decisions with a high degree of confidence. In a similar manner, data driven decisions can give organizations new opportunities not previously recognized. When I first heard about House of Cards, I was hearing how rapidly it was gaining popularity among viewers. One afternoon I decided to give it a go and after the first episode, I was hooked. Netflix knew I never had a chance.

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