In the television business, there is no such thing as a sure thing. You can have a gold-plated director, a bankable star and a popular concept and still, it’s just a roll of the dice.
Or is it?
In any business, the ability to see into the future is the killer app, and Netflix may be getting close with “House of Cards.” The series, directed by David Fincher, starring Kevin Spacey and based on a popular British series, is already the most streamed piece of content in the United States and 40 other countries, according to Netflix. The spooky part about that? Executives at the company knew it would be a hit before anyone shouted “action.”
Netflix, which has 27 million subscribers in the nation and 33 million worldwide, ran the numbers. It already knew that a healthy share had streamed the work of Mr. Fincher, the director of “The Social Network,” from beginning to end. And films featuring Mr. Spacey had always done well, as had the British version of “House of Cards.” With those three circles of interest, Netflix was able to find a Venn diagram intersection that suggested that buying the series would be a very good bet on original programming.
Big bets are now being informed by Big Data, and no one knows more about audiences than Netflix. A third of the downloads on the Internet during peak periods on any given day are devoted to streamed movies from the service.
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Film and television producers have always used data, holding previews for focus groups and logging the results, but as a technology company that distributes and now produces content, Netflix has mind-boggling access to consumer sentiment in real time.
How much data does it have at its fingertips? According to GigaOm, Netflix looks at 30 million “plays” a day, including when you pause, rewind and fast forward, four million ratings by Netflix subscribers, three million searches as well as the time of day when shows are watched and on what devices.
Jonathan Friedland, the company’s chief communications officer, said, “Because we have a direct relationship with consumers, we know what people like to watch and that helps us understand how big the interest is going to be for a given show. It gave us some confidence that we could find an audience for a show like ‘House of Cards.’ ”
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A cable executive who has talked to Amazon says that its Prime service, a nascent effort to get into original content, will also lean hard on data-driven approaches to determine its programming. The executive, who asked not to be identified because the discussions were private, said it would change the way that business operates sooner than people thought.
“I think it is a little hysterical to say that Big Data will win the day now and forever, but it is clear that having a very molecular understanding of user data is going to have a big impact on how things happen in television,” he said.
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“Netflix and Amazon know when you stop and start a program, whether you wanted the whole thing, all of that,” said Rick Smolan, whose most recent book was “The Human Face of Big Data.” “Programmers have been wandering out and shooting a shotgun into the night sky and hoping they hit something, and I end up paying $150 for channels full of nothing I want to watch. These guys know what they are aiming at.”
Obviously, Amazon uses Big Data for much more than its video service.