There’s Still No Algorithm For Great Content

Ciarán Norris
Jul 4, 2015 · 4 min read

Creative bravery is still more important than data-mining

There can surely be no doubt that Netflix is an incredible company. But disrupting distribution networks isn’t the same as discovering a magic formula for finding sure fire successes.

There can’t be many companies that have shaken up two different industries; in its first incarnation Netflix put the boot into DVD rental by building a subscription service whereby users were sent DVDs they were likely to enjoy, based on a powerful recommendation algorithm. Ask someone below the age of 20 if they know what Blockbuster was to get an idea of how that went.

Then, in a move which must make management consultants foam at the mouth, Netflix effectively disrupted itself by diving head first into the nascent video streaming industry. Whilst it’s far from a done deal it seems likely that this could shake up the US TV model, where the vast majority of the population subscribe to cable TV bundles.

One of the ways that Netflix has powered this second wave of disruption is by investing heavily in content. The story of how it bought the rights to the novel and 90s TV series House of Cards and remade it for the internet generation with Kevin Spacey in the main role, has become the stuff of legend in the media world. Supposedly the decision to buy the rights to the remake were based on the fact that Netflix mined the data to discover that its subscribers tended to like the work of Spacey, director David Fincher & the BBC original.

This big data driven Midas touch has also seen Netflix revive the cult movie show Arrested Development. They turned Orange Is The New Black, a show about an affluent young woman who is sent to prison, into an awards behemoth, whilst Daredevil, its gritty foray into the Marvel universe, is one of the best ever comic book adaptations¹.

Proof then, that Netflix has finally cracked the code of guaranteeing content that generates critical & commercial success.

Or has it?

For every House of Cards, there is a Marco Polo — an expensive attempt to create some sort of historical Game of Thrones type epic, which pretty much fell flat². For every OITNB, there’s a Sense8a confused, sprawling epic from the makers of The Matrix, that comes across as a hipster Heroes³ that tries too hard.

This isn't a criticism.

Indeed its commitment to investing huge amounts in content, even when some of it doesn't quite work out, is to be commended. And when you compare it to traditional media companies which increasingly put all their bets on rebooting, remaking and recycling old franchises, formats and characters rather than risk failure, it suggests that Netflix’s belief in innovation doesn't stop at how it distributes its content.

But just as great advertising demands that we don’t just rely on the cold, automatable logic of data, so too the way that people respond to stories, based as it is in emotion, can’t be boiled down to binary solutions. To take an example from a similarly disrupted entertainment industry, it’s the same reason that, in the era when anyone can be auto-tuned, there’s only one Taylor Swift, one Kanye West.

Netflix appears to know this, as does Amazon, which is also throwing Hollywood style budgets at its creative efforts. Both are now also locking up rights to content created by others; Netflix bought the excellent Peaky Blinders and The Fall from the BBC whilst Amazon owns the online rights for ITV’s Downton Abbey in the US. Even Netflix’s first Original, the surreal Nordic-Mafia series Lilyhammer, was actually a co-production with Norwegian TV station NRK.

Equally, it wouldn’t have taken a data scientist to work out that cooking shows are popular, but I’d argue that only creative risk-taking would lead to the creation of a series like Chef’s Table, which mixes fascinating biographies of what inspires the world’s greatest cooks with David Attenborough-style cinematography with. It’s not so much food-porn as food-erotica.

All of this highlights the fact that the traditional media companies who consider Netflix to be a threat to their entire existence are missing the point. Netflix is just a competitor: one willing to invest in others’ content as well as its own and to convince its subscribers to pay for said content to boot. No mean feat these days and something, I’d suggest, that should be celebrated.

As Kevin Spacey said about why House of Cards was so successful:

It’s just stories. And the audience has spoken. They want stories.

It now looks like Netflix’s next bid to convince people used to getting content for free to pay for it is going to involve reforming the Top Gear team under a new name. I’d wager that the data-crunching for that particular deal took about as long as it takes a computer to count to £50m.

But before that, they've released a documentary about Nina Simone, a singer known in the UK for two songs that were used in perfume and yoghurt commercials. But she was massively invested in the civil rights movement, preferred Bach to The Beatles and battled with depression, abuse and feelings of alienation.

It’s an incredible piece of work and whilst Netflix almost certainly has huge amounts of data about how much its viewers love documentaries, I can’t imagine the final decision to make it was down to anything other than creative bravery and intuition. And, frankly, that’s something we should celebrate.

¹ Though they really need to work on that mask.
² I actually liked it and kind of hope there’s a second series.
³ A show whose return I am awaiting in a state of geeky excitement, even though the fact that it’s being rebooted less than five years after the original limped to an end is a sign that we need Netflix’s bravery more than we can imagine.

Daredevil header image: Netflix

Ciarán Norris

Written by

30-something web & music geek: southern (English) soul boy, currently a man down under.

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