Friday 20 September 2013

Netflix and programming research

Netflix is soon to be launched onto the stock market. It will certainly be a success and part of its attraction is that it has ambitions in the TV and film production business. It understands that control of film software can be an asset to what is currently a distribution business. Rupert Murdoch adopted this philosophy earlier with huge financial gains.

Netflix already produces some original programmes, such as a TV series called ‘Orange is the new black’; a prison drama featuring nudity and sexual scenes. Recently its spokesman appeared on Channel 4 trumpeting their magic ingredient that would guarantee large audiences. This involves an algorithm and big data. Put simply the algorithm sifts through the audience preferences from their huge database to suggest the ideal ingredients for hit shows.

Forty years ago, two enterprising researchers at Masius Wynne Williams, then the second largest Ad Agency in the UK, successfully developed ‘TAPE’ which I think referred to Television Audience Preference Evaluation. It purported to predict audiences to TV channels based on their programming contents. Of course things were simpler then. In the UK we only had two channels, but the model was exported to the States where it was adopted by more TV channels and film Studios.

The problem with these models is that they can only use existing data and the key element that constitute programming success is originality. What algorithm would predict the success of ‘Steptoe and Son’ or ‘Dad’s Army’?

Raymond Snoddy, writing in MEdiaTel’s newsline, reports on the huge successes of ‘DR’, Denmark’s small public service broadcaster. They are responsible for hits that include The Killing, Borgen and the Bridge. The rest of this piece is based on Mr. Snoddy’s thoughtful report.

Morten Hessedahl is DR’s head of cultural affairs and responsible for the programmes mentioned. He says: 

“Never trust your research department and certainly do not let them inhibit your creativity. Numbers are good and reassuring, but they can only tell you about what worked in the past.

Stand behind the vision of the author at all times.

Don’t use external production houses”.

Mr. Hesserdahl is a talented, experienced and original thinker. I would trust his judgement over any algorithm invented by Netflix.

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