From our customizable iPad covers to our fast food burgers, we have become a culture that demands to have it our way. Now online TV producers are taking the cue.
The streaming video arms of Netflix and Amazon are working hard to customize programming for potential viewers based on data mined from those viewers’ own usage patterns and direct feedback solicited on content.
Netflix already has several successes to point to by applying a mathematical approach to original programming, including the recent series “House of Cards,” all 13 episodes of which were released simultaneously on Feb. 1. Based on user info about political dramas, director David Fincher, and star Kevin Spacey — among other data points — Netflix figured the show had a good chance to succeed.
Although the company won’t share hard numbers, it did trumpet that the series, which will return for a second season, was the most streamed show of all television titles on the site when it became available. Another, the horror series “Hemlock Grove,” performed even more strongly, according to Netflix. The company is no doubt hoping that the resurrection of the sitcom “Arrested Development,” all 15 episodes of which will be available at midnight PDT on Sunday , will be similarly successful.
Netflix is loath to make one-to-one correlations, but global corporate communications director Joris Evers says, “When you look at ‘House of Cards,’ we added 2 million members in the US in Q1 [the first quarter], and 1 million internationally in Q1. ‘House of Cards’ launched Feb. 1. Are some of those members that joined because of ‘House of Cards’? Probably. But we don’t talk specifically how many.” Currently, Netflix has 36 million subscribers.
Meanwhile, Amazon Studios — the production arm launched by the online retailer in 2010 — has adopted an ostensibly more democratic approach. It commissioned 14 series pilots — all comedies and children’s shows — and posted the finished products online in April for free viewing as part of the Amazon Prime Instant Video service. Feedback was invited from users, which would be used when deciding which shows would get ordered for a full complement of episodes.
The potential series include “Alpha House,” about four Republican senators who are also housemates, starring John Goodman and Clark Gregg; “Browsers,” a musical comedy with Bebe Neuwirth about interns at a Huffington Post-style aggregator; “Sara Solves It,” an animated kids show focusing on math problems from the executive producer of “Super WHY!”; and “Onion News Empire,” a sharp look at a 24-hour news channel from the satirical news outfit, starring Jeffrey Tambor and Chris Masterson. As of press time, “Zombieland,” an adaptation of the 2009 film, had the most reviews — which run from 1 to 5 stars — at over 5,800, with “Alpha House” garnering the second most, nearing 2,800.
“It’s been exciting to get all the feedback,” says Roy Price, director of Amazon Studios. “It’s encouraging to see that people are interested in checking out new shows and ideas and volunteering their opinions.” Amazon is expected to announce soon which shows will be picked up, and the decision will not be based solely on user reviews or number of views. “People rate the shows, they leave reviews, and they take a survey,” says Price. “So we’re looking at a lot of different factors that would help us understand which shows they liked most.”
Both men say the creative community has been open to the online platforms for programming.
“I actually think people embraced it,” says Price. “I think things have evolved quite considerably in the world of TV and Web video, and I think people have a much more open approach to it than they used to, and that’s because of the quality of the productions.”
“Anecdotally,” says Evers of Netflix, “from what I’ve seen, people are getting really excited about having another player in town that is very serious about original content, and it’s another place to bring their ideas.”
These ideas can then be refined for a specific audience.
“One of the great benefits of being an Internet television network is that we are able to personalize our service to our members,” says Evers. “We work hard to really get to know our members so we can give them the best possible recommendation of things to watch, but also so we can license the right titles and create the right original series.”
But having it your way does have its limits when it comes to defining what is “right” creatively, say both men. Even though access to an unprecedented amount of feedback gives them many options, one of them won’t be monkeying with the artistic process of the writers and producers.
In the case of Netflix, the company’s “episode dump” approach more or less precludes it. “The entire series of a show, we put them all up on Netflix at the same time, so it’s already done. We definitely let the creators of the show be as creative as they can be. We think we give them more creative opportunity on Netflix than they would get if they were at a regular network,” he says, adding that they don’t give notes or demand specific episode lengths to make room for advertising in a certain timeslot. “We try to hire the best and the brightest when it comes to creating a show and we let them do their jobs.”
And although they may be soliciting feedback on the pilots, Amazon’s Price says that’s where that type of collaboration ends. If, as the shows progress, there are complaints about story lines or specific requests for what viewers would like to see in the comments sections, they won’t change the course of a show.
“I think audiences can be relied on to indicate whether a show is working or not, and that’s what this system does best: tell you whether something is working,” says Price. “Trying to get creative suggestions, I think, is a different proposal. And the right way to think about it is if hundreds of thousands of people watch your show and say they love it, that’s great. And if they don’t love it, then you might want to think about how to evolve your show. But I’m not sure that people will always be able to come up with necessarily the right solution.”