"House of Cards" is Built on Big Data

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Netflix's new hit political drama isn't just good TV, Salon's Andrew Leonard explains - it's a harbinger of a whole new way of creating filmed entertainment.

Basically, Netflix analyzed and cross-referenced the minutely-tracked watching preferences of millions of customers to generate a formula for a hit. "Netflix doesn’t know merely what we’re watching, but when, where and with what kind of device," writes Leonard. "It keeps a record of every time we pause the action — or rewind, or fast-forward — and how many of us abandon a show entirely after watching for a few minutes." Armed with that knowledge, the company determined it had a lot of viewers who liked or would like the original BBC miniseries, and that those viewers are also suckers for movies starring Kevin Spacey or directed by David Fincher. (Count this Netflix subscriber among the target demo.) That made a sufficiently compelling case for Netflix to plunk down a reported $100 million for 26 episodes of a "House of Cards" remake starring Spacey under Fincher's direction.

The results this time are pretty good, if you ask me. But Leonard points up some important questions about how a data-driven movie making process might affect the artists involved. "We’ve seen what happens when news publications specialize in just delivering online content that maximizes page views. It isn’t always the most edifying spectacle. Do we really want creative decisions about how a show looks and feels to be made according to an algorithm counting how many times we’ve bailed out of other shows?"

Of course, no amount of data-driven audience targeting will salvage a badly-executed show. There are plenty of flops with Spacey or Fincher's name on them, let alone the number of bad political dramas that have come and gone. So it's encouraging that, according to Wired, one of the reasons Cards is a success is because while Netflix got the concept straight out of an algorithm, it handed over complete artistic control to the production company it hired to actually make the show.