BUZZSAW | Matthew Gilbert

The limitations of giving us what we want

For its first series, “House of Cards,” Netflix chose Kevin Spacey to star.
For its first series, “House of Cards,” Netflix chose Kevin Spacey to star. Melinda Sue Gordon

A few months ago in an interview with the Globe, Bob Schieffer of CBS News talked about the troubling partisan pattern of news viewership. “Do people really turn on the news now to find out what happened,” he wondered, thinking mostly of MSNBC and Fox News, “or are they turning it on to get a validation of what they already believe?”

It’s the difference between being open to what you might not have already considered, and being closed off. It’s living in a House of Windows, with a view of the world, versus living in a House of Mirrors, where you see yourself reflected over and over again.


Which brings me to “House of Cards,” and Netflix’s new data-driven approach to original series. The company has begun to pursue series TV in earnest this year, peaking today with the release of 15 new episodes of the beloved sitcom “Arrested Development.”

Here’s the twist: Netflix is using its massive data tank, built from monitoring years of viewing by its 33 million streaming subscribers worldwide, in order to make programming choices. First it is studying what people watch, which actors they return to, how much time they spend for each sitting, at what point they pause or stop the action, what they search for; and then it is building the shows. The streaming and DVD service has long suggested specific series to subscribers based on that individual’s data; now it is using the same information to create and recommend its own content.

“House of Cards,” released in February, was the result of that kind of information gathering. Star Kevin Spacey, director David Fincher, and the political-thriller genre have all been popular on Netflix, so combining them implied a guaranteed audience — or as close to guaranteed as things get in the hit-or-miss world of entertainment. Netflix has also found that binge viewing is a widespread trend, so the company decided to drop entire seasons on us all at once. Just as Facebook uses algorithms based on your “likes” to determine which ads you’ll see, Netflix is trying to anticipate your desires and determine which shows you’ll watch.


The Netflix approach: Give the people what they already want.

Amazon, too, is hoping to give you what you already want. As it moves forward with its own original programming, Amazon is posting TV pilots and soliciting viewer opinions about them. The potential audience is rating and commenting on the pilots online before the shows are ordered to series, and the Amazon executives will then use that information to make their final determinations.

They will also use data about how many people watched each pilot, how far they got in each pilot, and whether a pilot got any social media buzz.

Amazon put up 14 shows, with six kids’ series and eight adult comedies including “The Onion News Empire” starring Jeffrey Tambor and “Alpha House,” starring John Goodman and written by Garry Trudeau. No official word has been released yet on which pilots are more likely to become full series.

The idea of engineering shows based on our likes is kind of cool, but it’s also kind of creepy. Do we really want TV shows made in our own image, based on our online profiles? We generally think we know what we want, but how many times have we fallen in love with a show or a movie outside our usual box? As Netflix and Amazon — and, if their approach is successful, other outlets — work to eliminate their financial risk, fewer risky, off-the-beaten-path shows will get made. And risky shows – “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” “The Wire” — are often the best shows.


If only risk-free shows were manufactured, it’s possible that a gem like “Arrested Development” would never have been made. In 2003, when it premiered, “Arrested Development” was the kind of fresh comedy we’d never seen before. It was ahead of its time, as it bundled together in-jokes that were begging to be deconstructed online. Viewing statistics back then probably would not have indicated that such a show would be worth pursuing.

And if the “Arrested Development” pilot had been put online for voting, it might not have been brought to series. Most shows don’t begin as classics; “Seinfeld” is a famous example of a sitcom that needed plenty of futzing early on, before it became groundbreaking. “Six Feet Under” improved in its early weeks, as did “Parks and Recreation,” “The Office,” and “30 Rock.” It must be hard for networks to make a TV series with a full awareness that it could be rejected, but the alternative — the sure thing — is in danger of soullessness. As soon as you reduce something to a formula, you’ve reduced its creative potential, made it cold and passionless.

There’s something democratic about the Amazon technique, which has a hint of Kickstarter about it. Real people are getting to participate in the process, even if Amazon is going to make the final calls. We all vote with our remotes when we choose to watch something, and Amazon is now giving that vote a little more volume, a little more power.


But I don’t want us to have too much power. I don’t want to shape the shows, and see myself — my already established interests — looking back at me. There are professionals out there, such as Vince Gilligan, Matt Weiner, Larry David, and Lorne Michaels, who know a lot more about putting together a fresh, imaginative TV show than I do. Sometimes, when you place your order, you need ask for nothing more specific than the chef’s surprise.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at
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