How we select series to watch, according to Netflix

Todd Yellin of Netflix explains to Ed Power how predicting what modern viewers will binge-watch on the streaming service can be counterintuitive.

TODD Yellin’s wife loathes superheroes yet last year he talked her into sitting down with the new adaptation of Marvel’s Jessica Jones.

“She’s allergic to anything to do with comic books. I didn’t say Jessica Jones was based on a comic. I said it had a strong female lead, was about a private investigator with an alcohol problem — and that it had really good reviews by critics.

“As it turned out, she loved it and would never have watched if she had been introduced to it as a Marvel Comic book story.”

Yellin is vice president of product at streaming giant Netflix and it is his job to help subscribers discover new shows worthy of their precious binging time (via the service’s “recommendations” feed). This involves crunching numbers and running complex algorithms — but it is also grounded in the understanding that two people might watch the same television for different reasons.

His wife, to return to the above example, adored Jessica Jones because it was about a strong woman making her way through a cruel world; others may have enjoyed the series because it featured a superhero who can lift cars with her little finger. Both reactions are equally valid.

“Different people will like stories for different reasons, “ he explains. “We match people with “taste communities” based on what they watch. You could be paired with someone who lives one kilometre down the road or they might live 10,000 kilometres away.”

He illustrates the process by bringing up another Netflix hit Ozark, in which Jason Bateman plays a Walter White-esque suburban accountant who is laundering money for a Mexican drug cartel in the Appalachians. At first glance the drama’s appeal appears straightforward. It’s a classic piece of ‘prestige television’ about an archetypal man with a complicated professional and personal life. Not so simple, says Yellin.

“There are a few taste communities around the world with which Ozark is extremely popular, he explains.”One taste community enjoys titles such as Narcos [about Colombia’s drugs business], El Chapo [a biopic of the Mexican cartel kingpin] and documentaries about the cocaine trade.

“But it is also popular with a taste community that watches The Blacklist, The People v OJ Simpson, Breaking Bad and House of Cards. So what does the Blacklist have in common with Ozark? It’s that anti-heroes are central to the story.

“They are dark characters who show the demons within us all. That’s very different than something about the drugs trade. And there’s a third taste community that likes Ozark — those whose most popular title is [financial meltdown satire] The Big Short. People interested in the intricacies of money laundering are also interested in the intricacies of credit default swaps.”

Netflix Original series, Narcos

Netflix is acknowledged leader at giving viewers something they didn’t quite realise they wanted. For instance, its first big original hit, House of Cards, flowed from the
observation that Kevin Spacey and political thrillers were big box office with subscribers. Put the two together and the result was a mega smash.

“The people on the content side knew Kevin Spacey was popular, knew political dramas were popular. They thought, ‘Well wouldn’t it be great for Netflix to produce something along those lines?’.”

That’s not to say Netflix has an unerring ability to tell the future. The company has released a string of critical flops this year, among them Iron Fist, Friends From College and the already-cancelled Gypsy (Netflix doesn’t share audience figures, making it difficult to measure the popularity of perceived hits and misses). Even its successes occasionally catch the corporation unawares.

“We are surprised many times,” nods Yellin. “There are some things we have no idea how big they are going to be. Stranger Things is a great example, as are Making a Murderer and 13 Reasons Why. They were huge around the world and while we felt they would be successful we didn’t realise they would become global phenomena.”


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