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Programmed to receive: How Netflix paints by numbers

Analysis. There are several things that should bother me about ”House of Cards,” (HoC) season 4, most af all the simplicity.

For instance, how binary the top players in the world’s most powerful administration appear; they are either strong or weak. The latter applies to two of the most prolific positions on the world stage, the US Secretary of State and the top military commander, both being outmaneuvered like gullible pawns.

That is not artistic freedom, but operational convenience. HoC lacks the depth and curiosity of those epic dramas, it so obviously aspires to: ”The West Wing,” and ”Sopranos.”

But I am not bothered. I understand. I am not the demographic for HoC, or rather, I far from the only demographic, Netflix is aiming for.

The global giant in all things streaming is going for volume, of course. To capture as many eyeballs as possible, and the means to that is a well produced and slick binge drama with all the right ingredients: Suspense, sex, power, and politics, all in the hands of some very able craftsmen.

Still, HoC can tell us a lot, on multiple levels, and it is mostly about data.

Painting by numbers

Netflix famously applied algorithms and massive amounts of viewing data to construct HoC. That is how they ended up with Kevin Spacey as the lead actor as well several of the directors involved. The plot itself is an adaption of a production by the BBC.

The entertainment industry has always had market research as a key component in their business model, in order to minimize the risks by when launching a multimillion dollar endeavor. Numerous films have been edited or even dramatically changed after test screenings.

With the arrival of data and algorithms, the industry has been giving a far more powerful tool. The result will be more calculated pieces of work like HoC. If they catch on, the methodology will thrive. Not only in moving pictures, but also other media like books. E-readers provide the publishers, and by extension the authors, data on reading behavior such as time spent per page, or at what passage the reader lost interest.

Such work is not art. ”It is paintings by numbers,” according to the HoC character Tom Yates, when the author and journalist is asked to write speeches based on search data.

The public does not care about privacy”

This leads us to another important and apparent tale from HoC, the use of search data to get to know the voters intimately enogh to convince them. This is far from fiction, in fact a similar occurrence was covered in one of our recent newletters, about the campaign of Texas senator Ted Cruz, now only one other demagogue away from becoming the presidential candidate of the party of Lincoln, Eisenhower and Reagan.

In HoC, there is a small, but important sequence, where one of the protagonists, Republican candidate Will Conway, is threatened by having the above methods exposed to the public. His reponse is to reciprocate, sort of. He shows footage and stills from his home with his family. The sequence ends with the political opponents conceding defeat: ”The public does not care about privacy.”

Obvisously, this is a false equivalence. What Will Conway should have done was granting acces to his phone and laptop, for the public to see. But who would want that?

Never trust the government

Throughout season 4, the politicians’ concerns when applying sophisticated data analytics, is not the abuse, but the risk of getting caught. Perhaps because they deep down feel they are doing the right thing in the bigger scheme of things, but HoC never explores such dilemmas.

The goverment has the data, but needs the skills to convert that to political currency. Therefore, the government approaches and convinces experts from the private sector to play along.

I would rather have my data stored with a private company than a government. For one, because the company is much easier to predict, as it has a very clear and rational because objective, commercial gain. With the government and politicians, you never know.

The perfect model

HoC, however, is also an opportunity to take a closer look at the corporate use of data.

Netflix is one the great success stories in recent business history. The company started its disruption of the video industry almost two decades ago, when the business still was about DVD’s, but the defining moment came just before Netflix entered what is now the streaming market.

Instead of doing the obvious, introducing a slick piece of hardware, a TV box, to control the distribution, CEO Reed Hastings opted for a business model based on software and platforms. The service would not be tied to anything, but what the customer wanted, on any device, from game consol to laptop. A legendary move, nowadays, and if you want to find out, if the TV box strategy worked, even on your home turf, ask Yousee.

Netflix has become a giant in terms of market and content. It is not part of the notorious ”Gang of Four” (Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon) that arguably set the tone in Silicon Valley, but Netflix is not far behind, and it owes its powerhouse status to data.

Even if Google, Facebook, or for that matter Hollywood, wanted to push Netflix out of the market, it is too late. Netflix has gathered enough criticial mass of the most valuable material, data. No other player is able to match Netflix on viewing data, and the success of HoC underlines the importance.

Netflix has also another advantage compared to the likes of Google and Facebook. It is not under the same kind of scrutiny from regulators and privacy advocates as the search giant and the world’s largest social network.

But Netflix’ business model is as, if not more, data driven than any other company. All the data are already inside the machine, in Netflix. No need to track users across the internet by placing hundreds of cookies, no need to manipulate news feeds; just keep on crunching the data. To identify key factors like exactly when the TV show hook viewers (it’s not the pilot).

Push pause, and think about that for a moment, before you resume binging.

Or as true artists once wrote: ”We are programmed to receive / You can check out any time you like / But you can never leave!”