House of Data

Ladies and gentlemen, please put your hands together for the critically acclaimed, Emmy and Golden Globe awarded, and newly renewed for a third season…

… Big Data!

A slight over exaggeration perhaps, but streaming giant Netflix’s marriage of big data and original content that is ‘House of Cards’ has brought the potential of big data into the mainstream spotlight. With its recent premiere in New Zealand, and the release of Season 2 on Netflix, it’s timely to see if the hype surrounding big data’s involvement is everything it seems to be.

Netflix’s use of big data in its streaming service is well known, used primarily for recommendations based on a user’s viewing habits of the near 77,000 movie and TV genres coded into its system.

With their mountains of subscriber information, Netflix invested over $100 million in two seasons of House of Cards without ever seeing a pilot. The data said that a political drama starring Kevin Spacey, directed by David Fincher and based on the British series of the same name would be a hit with viewers. So it has proved, with big data hailed as the future of content creation in the process.

Netflix certainly agrees, investing more than $400 million in data-fuelled original content in 2014, including ‘Hemlock Grove’, ‘Marco Polo’ and new episodes of ‘Arrested Development’.

The debate surrounding the viability of a big data approach has heated up with Netflix’s released intentions. Certainly, you could argue that ‘House of Cards’ already had a popular British predecessor, and it stars Kevin Spacey; predictable as a success regardless of big data? ‘Hemlock Grove’ is based on a successful novel, ‘Marco Polo’ will be a historical drama produced by ‘Game of Thrones’ veterans, and ‘Arrested Development’ was widely mourned when the hugely popular original series was discontinued.

But this is missing the point somewhat. Big data is not going to reveal that viewers actually want to see something radically new and different that producers never considered. Rather, the insights revealed by the data mean show production decisions can be made with far more certainty regarding commercial success. Basing your investment on a pilot episode? No longer necessary.

Beyond the initial conception of the show, big data is most evident in the promotion of ‘House of Cards’; Netflix segmented its subscribers based on viewing habits and developed six different trailers for the show, with each one shown to its relevant audience.

There have been reservations from some quarters to Netflix’s high profile integration of big data in its content. Could the data end up dictating the detail of the production? Could creative thought be constrained and funnelled down paths well trod? Such concerns certainly have their parallels when it comes to advertising and big data. The story that gets created from the data is key, and in the end the creative content itself is still king.

As good a show as ‘House of Cards’ may be, the commercial metrics are the measurement many (and especially us advertisers) will judge its success by. A $30 million profit posted last quarter by Netflix and 2.3 million new subscribers would seem to put any doubts to rest.

The success of big data in a traditionally hit-and-miss industry has really brought its potential to the collective attention. If nothing else, it serves to emphasise how its integration into more consistent business such as retail is becoming more a necessity than a complement.

Now, with Season 2 out, time to descend into the depths of binge watching for the weekend…

Author: Will Riley (Clemenger Graduate)