Monday 20 November 2017

Can people power change the face of entertainment?

Netflix and Amazon are now more aware of our binge watching habits, knowing the exact moment we are hooked on a TV series.

Suspense: Netflix fans fell hard for Bloodline by the fourth episode
Suspense: Netflix fans fell hard for Bloodline by the fourth episode
Unfinished: Author Donna Tartt

Tanya Sweeney

The term 'Netflix and chill' might have ­become the newest ­euphemism for an evening of casual sex, but there's nothing chilled about a stealthy binge watch.

With audiences wolfing down whole hours of series at a time, Netflix started a quest to see just what makes their subscribers tick. Analysing streamed data from around the world in early 2015, Netflix have conducted a study to pinpoint the very moment when viewers decided a show was worthy of a binge. It's official; never mind the TV pilot; we're now in it for the long haul.

"Binge watching is a sign of the times," asserts Shane O'Leary, advertising strategist with the Target McConnells agency. "As consumers, we're addicted to immediacy, flexibility and personalisation."

"Viewers are now, more than ever, willing to invest in a show and see how a layered story will unfold," says Jenny McCabe, director of Global Media Relations at Netflix.

Some shows reeled their audience in sooner than others: Breaking Bad managed to have fans hooked as early as episode 2, Orange is the New Black had folks addicted by the third episode, Bloodline fans fell hard for the show around episode 4, while Once Upon a Time's viewers took until episode 6 to get hooked. This means that Netflix, and the shows' producers, can pinpoint which plot points or characters worked, and which didn't.

Netflix have long used analytics to select films and create content for their site. Their rivals, Amazon Prime, go one further, releasing a selection of pilots online and using audience input to help decide which to green-light.

And in the great race towards winning subscribers, this sort of information puts a new bank of talent ahead of the race.

"As users, we only see the shiny exterior of the service, but there's a big machine at work in the background," says O'Leary. "The Netflix recommendation engine is getting more intelligent about your preferences based upon what, when and how you watch. The downside of this is that algorithms get to know us so well, we're artificially kept away from content that might go against our user profile. So some of the serendipity of finding a random show that we might never seek out, but grow to love, is lost."

In the main, TV and film-making talent are drawn to the Netflix/Amazon Prime model. They love its long-form way of storytelling, unbound by constraints like ad breaks or traditional TV schedules/demands. This is precisely the carrot that has helped lure in A-list talent like Tina Fey, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie (Netflix) and Woody Allen (Amazon Prime).

Brazilian film-maker Jose Padilha said Netflix was his only choice for his gritty Spanish/English-language drug drama Narcos.

Says McCabe: "We give (artists and studios) the freedom to tell stories their way and realise their vision. Our creators are always interested in how their shows are received by our members, but the data will not be used to creatively impact the shows."

The question looms large: if Netflix and its kind are looking at 'big picture' figures, what will this mean for the future? These new platforms are trading on their boundary-breaking modus operandi for now, but will they soon be pandering to the lowest common denominator?

"There's definitely a worry that giving people what they want will result in pandering to the lowest common denominator," notes O'Leary. "It's the old media question of 'giving people what they want' versus 'giving people what we think is most important'."

There's more bad news for traditional TV, according to a new Nielsen study in the US: homes with broadband-only and no pay-TV are up by 52pc, while subscription video-on-demand rose by 18pc to 45pc. Meanwhile, Netflix's subscriber base has swelled to 65.5 million users worldwide at last count.

Netflix's new research opens another chapter in how we consume, and leaving a digital footprint with companies like Netflix and Amazon is changing the face of modern commerce.

Canadian eBook company Kobo confirmed that most people who bought Donna Tartt's highly anticipated (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) novel The Goldfinch didn't actually finish it (fewer than half, in fact). Books have been unfinished since time immemorial, but it's the first time that writers, and publishers, are being told the cold hard facts about their work.

Writing on the New York Review Of Books blog, novelist Francine Prose says: "Writers (and their editors) could soon be facing meetings in which the marketing department informs them that 82pc of readers lost interest in their memoir on page 272. And if they want to be published in the future, whatever happens on that page should never be repeated."

Of course, such data doesn't take into account the 'human' experience of consuming film, TV or books. Some people, after all, will finish a book or series to the bitter end out of sheer stubbornness, not because they have fallen hook, line and sinker for the narrative. This all begs the question: where do these engagement analytics leave us, the readers and viewers?

Binge watching may be de rigueur, but the appeal of a traditional reading experience still holds firm.

"We expected the ebook to eat the paper book industry, but it hasn't happened," says O'Leary. "Ebook sales fell by 10pc in the first five months of this year, according to the Association of American Publishers. That's because ebooks still aren't much of an improved experience. We value the tactile element of paper, it puts us into a different mindset."

Barnes & Noble has determined, through analysing Nook data, that non-fiction books tend to be read in fits and starts, while novels are generally read straight through. Science-fiction, romance and crime-fiction fans often read more books quickly, while fans of literary fiction quit books more often and tend to skip around between books.

Whether this new data will impede the sort of human, intuitive risks that result in the commissioning of happy literary accidents, it's hard to tell. But for now, those with an appetite for books, films and TV on the outer fringes of the mainstream have yet to be trumped by the algorithm. With commerce becoming ever more interactive, people power will rule supreme. Whether that's a good or a bad thing remains to be seen.

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