Netflix's 'human algorithm' knows your needs and wants better than you do

Netflix's 'human algorithm' knows your needs and wants better than you do

CultureOctober 20, 2015 By Tierney Nash

If you’ve gotten into Netflix to the point that you know about ‘Netflix and Chill,’ there’s a good chance you have an untreatable addiction to one of its original series. Whether you’re cracked out on House of Cards, Orange Is The New Black or Narcos, Netflix graciously offers you the ability to pick your junkie poison with a staggering amount of television series, movies or stand-up specials all at your fingertips. Paid for and produced by Netflix themselves, these are collectively referred to as Netflix Originals, and they’re almost always good and habit-forming.

This is no accident, not some “lucky streak” of productions that surreptitiously happened to work. Instead, Netflix’s success is a precise science. Netflix has a style of production that’s entirely dictated by statistical analysis of what people really want from them, something they acquire through watching you and waiting for your next move. They start with a stacked library of hundreds of shows and movies listed in its database. Each time you watch West Wing or a something with Kevin Spacey, Netflix knows. It knows whenever you stop watching a show, decide that now is a good time to pause, and even the exact moment when you suddenly get hooked and are unable to stop watching (a.k.a when your addiction starts).

There’s a man, one sole man, behind all this data gathering. His name is Ted Sarandos, and he calls himself a "human algorithm,” and uses viewer’s data to figure out what people want from a television show. Rather than rely on gut instinct on what makes a show “good,” or paying homage to great filmmakers' styles and stories, he ensures Netflix is armed with empirical data about people’s viewing habits. He's the man behind House of Cards, a series essentially rolled together because data indicated that people were all about West Wing and Breaking Bad (theme), Twin Peaks and David Fincher films (director), and Kevin Spacey movies (star of the show).

This all makes it sound much, much easier than it actually is. The process of digging through all of this information to find out these golden chunks of television greatness is something that no one could do on their own, and it likely takes a lot of computer power and a bunch of IT departments to figure this all out. But, Netflix shows are automatically destined for greatness from the very beginning because of this. There are no mistakes made in quality, because Netflix and its shows are essentially a giant mirror that reflects the average viewer’s interest back to them in story form.

There’s also the fact that the most popular Netflix Originals are ones that came from other great ideas. Arrested Development was cancelled despite thousands of people saying they’d watch another season, so Netflix brought it back. Orange Is The New Black started out as a memoir, but then Jenji Kohan sprinkled some magic screenwriter dust on it like the first season of Weeds and turned it into this hugely entertaining, socially aware series. And then there are those series created by people known for great ideas: like Tina Fey’s show, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Everything Tina Fey touches is a great idea, so it makes sense for Netflix to harvest her.

It doesn’t hurt that Netflix pockets are deeper than the Mariana Trench, either.

But the thing about Netflix, is instead of spending a bunch of money on advertising, it focuses its budget on creating really good shows. Because it knows, and we know, the thing that gets someone into a show isn’t some company telling everyone they should want Narcos, it’s the fact that every fucking friend you bump into keeps telling you to watch it, “because it’s half Breaking Bad, half Spanish lesson, with maybe a little Scarface sprinkled on top.”

Each show Netflix produces is top-notch and comes with a really huge production budget to make it look as appealing as possible. In February 2013, Netflix shelled out $2 billion on original content. This includes $100 million that allowed us to see a whole new side of Kevin Spacey in the first two seasons of House of Cards. Then, later that year in July, Orange Is The New Black premiered on the streaming service after spending another $100 million with Jenji Kohan. So many people are now signed up for Netflix monthly that it's rapidly becoming the biggest name in streaming services.

In 2016, Netfllix plans to spend $5 billion on creating original content. This means it has more to work with than ever before. More money to spend on tracking you and your addictive habits, more money to repurpose already-addictive content into a Netflix Original, and more money to fuel our addictions by upping the production value and the cast and crew to the highest of standards. It’s like having a rich drug dealer who keeps getting richer because his shit is good, and because of that he can afford to source even better shit.

Oh wait, that’s just the plot of Breaking Bad.

Netflix is an entertainment demigod, just naturally always one step ahead, and that’s how it keeps everyone hooked. Netflix is planning on replacing cable television soon, and if it does, it’ll go down in history as the first streaming service to do that. And with the quality of the Netflix Originals, it has the capacity to be the entire entertainment industry, at once, on your laptop, accessible from anywhere. So just sit back and relax. Watch as Netflix slowly takes over your mind, body, and soul with its sci-fi technology. We promise you, it’s worth it. And when you need a 12-step program to wean yourself off, we’re sure it's got a self-help rom-com to help out.