How our data is used and analysed by Netflix to create hit shows

There’s a real reason why you just spent 12 hours watching Making a Murderer

It turns out there’s a formula to what makes or breaks a new TV show – and it’s determined by us. In a Ted Talk, data scientist Dr Sebastian Wenicke explained how Netflix and Amazon decide what to make or commission next based on whatever stats they can get hold of from us. He believes shows like House of Cards were specifically designed to be a hit.

Obviously TV channels have been doing this for years, but it goes far beyond Netflix giving you suggestions on what to watch based on the fact that you’ve just been watching The US Office for four hours.

Mentioning winning shows like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and The Wire, Sebastian agreed that they’re addictive. He said: “After you’ve watched a season, your brain is basically like, ‘Where can I get more of these episodes?’ That kind of show.” Basically Amazon test our their new shows and rely on data, while Netflix analyse what we’ve been watching before and take a gamble.

Why Amazon are almost nailing it

Sebastian uses the example of Roy Price, the Senior executive at Amazon to make his point. Obviously Roy is under a lot of pressure to find a show people will be addicted to, so what he does it hold a sort of competition.

He said: “He takes a bunch of ideas for TV shows, and from those ideas, through an evaluation, they select eight candidates for TV shows, and then he just makes the first episode of each one of these shows and puts them online for free for everyone to watch. When Amazon is giving out free stuff, you’re going to take it, right? So millions of viewers are watching those episodes.”


Sebastian talking about shows with the best ratings

What viewers don’t realise is that they’re actually being watched, in a way, by Amazon. Every single thing they do during the show is noted down and analysed.

Sebastian said: “They record when somebody presses play, when somebody presses pause, what parts they skip, what parts they watch again. So they collect millions of data points, because they want to have those data points to then decide which show they should make.” In this case, Sebastian  says the data pointed to Amazon making a show about a US senator. They did this and made it a sitcom called Alpha House, which was only moderately successful, because they relied so heavily on data, which will apparently only get you so far.

This particular show got seven and a half out of 10 for ratings, which is bang on average in the television industry and not a solid nine like Game of Thrones. Amazon Prime members view video 4.9 times per month, but Netflix are running away with the competition on 12.7.

Why Netflix are nailing it

Following on from the Amazon example, Sebastian turned his attention to Netflix. Their Chief Content Officer, Ted Sarandos, does things a little bit differently to constantly pick shows he thinks we should be watching.

Sebastian said: “Instead of holding a competition, he looked at all the data they already had about Netflix viewers, you know, the ratings they give their shows, the viewing histories, what shows people like, and so on. And then they use that data to discover all of these little bits and pieces about the audience: what kinds of shows they like, what kind of producers, what kind of actors.”


‘Have you heard about this new show?’

Interestingly, the data also pointed to them making a show about senators, just like Amazon. But unlike their rival they made a gamble by putting together a show based on just one – which they called House of Cards.

He added: “That’s why I believe that Netflix was so successful, because they used data and brains where they belong in the process. They use data to first understand lots of pieces about their audience that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to understand at that depth, but then the decision to take all these bits and pieces and put them back together again and make a show like “House of Cards,” that was nowhere in the data.”