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Opinion: Netflix pushing television in a positive direction

By Sam Tracy
On February 19, 2013

In anticipation for Winter Storm Nemo, I canceled all my plans and decided to finally try watching "House of Cards." While the storm didn't end up being as historical as many predicted, I think that while watching Netflix's first high-profile attempt at original programming, I witnessed history in the making.
This immensely popular new series may mark the beginning of a new era in television. It broke from tradition at every point in the production process, from assembling the team, to creating the episodes themselves, to marketing and releasing the content for viewing. If it's any indication of the trajectory for television, I welcome the change.
The cornerstone of the series' success, and the success of Netflix as a whole, lies in something called Big Data. To sum it up, this means that Netflix records every tiny action taken by its users, allowing them to not only calculate the overlap of viewership between its shows, but also to know where in an episode viewers pause most often or how many episodes they watch in a row.
Traditionally, Netflix has used this data to drive its recommendation algorithms, helping users to discover new content that aligns with their own preferences. But with "House of Cards," Netflix put Big Data to work in a new way, using it to create original content that would almost certainly be a success. For example, Big Data drove Netflix executives to go with a remake of the popular BBC miniseries, but it didn't stop there - they also used their vast stores of data to figure out that viewers who enjoyed the original series also loved actor Kevin Spacey and director David Fincher, making their casting a logical conclusion.
Data driving creative decisions like this has led to some concern, with Salon's Andrew Leonard writing, it might lead to stagnation. After all, if past preferences are the main metric for deciding what direction a show is going to take, how will anyone ever create something new and unexpected? Will we be watching zombie shows for eternity due to the success of "The Walking Dead?"
The concern about Leonard is unfounded luckily. Analysis of past preferences has always been a part of the creative process. It can be great, leading production studios to expand on their successesor creating massive franchises like Toy Story or James Bond. It can also be terrible, leading producers to continue a show or movie series that should have ended much earlier (Prison Break, anyone?). The entertainment industry already makes heavy use of focus groups, with small rooms of people influencing decisions to renew or cancel shows. Big Data just improves this process, gathering input from the entire population rather than a small sample.
Casting aside, Netflix also used Big Data and its freedom from the television to make "House of Cards" far superior to most shows on cable today. Without the need to fit into a 60-minute time slot with exactly 18 minutes of commercials, the episodes vary in length and don't have the awkward forced suspense before each commercial break.
Of course, the most prominent deviation from tradition was the show's method of release. Execs noted that many of their users consumed media in huge gulps, and decided to release the entire 13-episode season all at once rather than mimic television by posting one episode per week. This paid off, allowing the series to gain momentum incredibly quickly by generating a huge amount of free publicity.
Admittedly, this does have a few problems with it since everyone may be at a different point in the series, it's nearly impossible to talk about the show's plot without spoiling it for someone else. But I'm confident that Netflix will come up with a creative solution for these problems and that these costs are greatly outweighed by the benefits.
Of course, with only one major show under its belt, it's difficult to tell whether Netflix is starting a new era of television, or just got one lucky hit on its first try. But it's already producing a second season of "House of Cards," as well as a new season of "Arrested Development" set to premiere this May. If these are huge successes too, traditional television producers will need to seriously consider the direction of the industry, and viewers will be able to look forward to a new era of fantastic programming tailored to their preferences. 


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