Two years ago, for the first time ever, Americans watched more movies legally via streaming than on DVDs. The shift signified more than a simple change in formats; it also made a huge difference in how much information the providers of online programming can gather about our viewing habits. Netflix is in the vanguard of this revolution, a pioneer overlapping the intersection where Big Data and entertainment media meet.
Netflix has always been very explicit about its plans to exploit its Big Data know-hows to influence its programming choices. “House of Cards” is one of the first major test cases of this Big Data-driven creative strategy. When the program, a remake of a BBC miniseries, was up for purchase in 2011 with David Fincher and Kevin Spacey attached, Netflix executives simply looked at their massive stash of data. And data clearly showed that subscribers who watched the original series were also likely to watch movies directed by David Fincher and enjoy ones that starred Kevin Spacey. Considering the material and the players involved, Netflix was sure that an audience was out there. Therefore a remake of the BBC drama with Spacey and Fincher attached was a no-brainer, to the point that the company committed $100 million for two 13-episode seasons as well as total creative control of the production to David Fincher.
Now can Big data and creativity go hand in hand?
In the first minute of House of Cards, protagonist Frank Underwood kills a dog. But the scene may not have happened at all if the show’s creators had allowed their better judgment to interfere.
According to Beau Willimon, the lead writer of House of Cards, in the first stages of the project some executives on the creative scene were very concerned with this scene: “You can’t kill a dog. You’ll lose half your viewership in the first 30 seconds”.
Willimon said he took the issue to David Fincher, the show’s director: “So I go to Fincher and I go, ‘I’m really into this opening. I think it really works for the opening of the show. But people are telling me we’ll lose half our viewers in the first 30 seconds.’
“And he goes, ‘I don’t give a shit.’
“I go, ‘I don’t, either. Fuck it, let’s do it.’”
The scene came to define House of Cards as a provocative work in the style of other dramas with anti-heroes like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad. It helped establish Netflix, which carries the show, as a home for high-quality TV.
In fact, a lot of people stopped watching House of Cards when Frank killed his neighbor’s dog. But David Fincher and his creative team stood their ground and kept ignoring the data, focusing on the storyline and character development instead. “Moments like this require someone who will act, do the unpleasant thing, the necessary thing.” – Frank Underwood (House of Cards).
“If you weren’t going to be able to survive this dog strangling,” Willimon noted, “then this show probably isn’t for you.”
The scene’s triumph over data is an excellent example of what defines successful shows on networks like Netflix, HBO, Showtime, FX, and AMC. They are usually driven by brilliant producers like Fincher who are given free creative license.
As much as I think data mining and consumer insight are important, I am really glad that creativity still has the upper hand when it comes to storytelling.
- Baldwin, R. (2013, February 1). With House of Cards, Netflix Bets on Creative Freedom | Gadget Lab | WIRED. Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/2013/02/creative-freedom-cord-cutting
- VanHemert, K. (2013, February 19). The Secret Sauce Behind Netflix’s Hit, “House Of Cards”: Big Data | Co.Design | business + design. Retrieved from http://www.fastcodesign.com/1671893/the-secret-sauce-behind-netflixs-hit-house-of-cards-big-data
- Seward, Z. M. (2014, June 29). The opening scene of “House of Cards” was a triumph of creativity over data and better judgment – Quartz. Retrieved from http://qz.com/227842/the-opening-scene-of-house-of-cards-was-a-triumph-of-creativity-over-data-and-better-judgment/
- House of Cards – SE01EP01 ‘Two kinds of pain’ on Vimeo. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://vimeo.com/65543283