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Netflix muzzles viewer reaction to their algorithms

Netflix logoAn interesting thing happened on the way to Netflix’s world video dominance, driven by their inscrutable algorithms. The opinions of actual viewers have been tuned down or out by Netflix.

A year ago, their viewer rating system was neutered with a switch from a five-point rating scale to a simple thumbs up/thumbs down. This change was explained away as a way to improve user experience. But it may have had more to do with avoiding middling ratings for Netflix originals when viewers compared potential viewing choices. A less discrete measure evens things up.

This neutering is furthered this year by the closing of the viewer comment section on Netflix. Doubtless this is somewhat driven by the troll mentality found anywhere online comments are allowed. But it also means that Netflix users cannot now comment on their content – or see previous comments. This again could influence viewer choice and decisions.

Netflix may trying to deal with the reality that a firehose of content isn’t going to generate hit after hit, even with high-level data analytics. By reducing the context of a viewing decision, they can improve the chances of their less-successful originals to be picked.

Batting .350 Is a Success in TV, Too

Of course, there has always been the argument that if there was some way to analytically improve creative development, wouldn’t broadcast and cable networks have figured out some way in the past to improve their pipeline? In the 2009 through 2015 broadcast seasons, an average of 64% of new scripted broadcast programs were not renewed. And that “failure” proportion would be even higher if cancelled pilots and non-renewals after a second season are included. An improvement of even ten percentage points would have huge impact on networks – and still, half of programs would fail. But no secret formula – star, logline, or format – seemed to consistently explain success or failure.

There is no doubt that Netflix’s algorithms can identify many viewer segments to target. Data can help with green-lighting and marketing new series. But the bug in the machine is that television is a creative medium – and data crunching can’t help bad writing, directing, or casting. As Netflix seems to be heading towards premium pricing, the least they can do is let their viewers keep their say.

David Tice is the principal of TiceVision LLC, a media research consultancy.
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