Netflix

Once I got past the fact that the New York Times’ David Carr doesn’t like “The West Wing,” (who doesn’t like “The West Wing?”), I realized he’s got a pretty interesting point in today’s column about how Big Data is making a big difference in what we think we like and don’t like.

I wrote about my ambivalent feelings about BD not long ago. It’s great in many ways — helping us make better decisions and helping us solve big, big problems — like global warming, earthquakes, cancer (and how to produce hit TV shows, as Carr points out).

My worry about BD was that it will steal spontaneity from our lives by figuring out what we like before we’ve even had a chance to decide. Carr’s column touches on my fear by looking at Netflix and its hit TV show “House of Cards,” directed by David Fincher and starring Kevin Spacey. Carr dissects how Big Data made the show a sure bet with viewers. He writes:

“Netflix, which has 27 million subscribers in the nation and 33 million worldwide, ran the numbers. It already knew that a healthy share had streamed the work of Mr. Fincher, the director of “The Social Network,” from beginning to end. And films featuring Mr. Spacey had always done well, as had the British version of “House of Cards.” With those three circles of interest, Netflix was able to find a Venn diagram intersection that suggested that buying the series would be a very good bet on original programming.”

Good for Netflix, right? But Carr quotes skeptics, too, who raise the possibility that TV producers, directors and investors might one day discover that particular segments of the audience favor “gruesome torture scenes or like only sexual romps,” as Andrew Leonard pointed out in Salon.

Will that mean that editors will approach TV shows, movies, etc. with all that in mind?

John Landgraf, of FX Networks, comes closest in Carr’s piece to expressing my concern. He tells Carr:

“Data can only tell you what people have liked before, not what they don’t know they are going to like in the future. A good high-end programmer’s job is to find the white spaces in our collective psyche that aren’t filled by an existing television show,” adding, those choices were made “in a black box that data can never penetrate.”

It gets back to my point that we are now living in a world where Google tells us what news to read, Apple’s iTunes tells us what songs we like, Amazon tells us what books we want to read (not to mention what sweater we want to buy) and very little is actually left up to us.

(Photo: Netflix/Associated Press)

Mike Cassidy Mike Cassidy (173 Posts)

I write about the culture of Silicon Valley for the San Jose Mercury News.