Netflix Knows What We Really Want, And It’s An Alcoholic Talking Horse
Given Netflix’s incomparably vast data on viewer preferences, we assume the company knows what it’s doing when it green-lights a cartoon featuring an alcoholic talking horse and multiple instances of bestiality.
“BoJack Horseman,” debuted on Netflix streaming last week to some very positive and some very negative reviews. Although the company shares almost no data about viewership, it was apparently confident enough to renew the show for a second season .
The show, which takes place in a world in which animals are interchangeable with humans, tells the story of a talking horse, BoJack, who used to have a sitcom and now lives a pathetic life in Los Angeles.
Created by comedian Raphael Bob-Waksberg, “BoJack” brings together elements of various shows thought to be popular on Netflix. It stars Will Arnett, a favorite actor from “Arrested Development,” which was so popular on streaming that Netflix produced an exclusive fourth season. It guest-stars Aaron Paul, whose “Breaking Bad” is notoriously popular among binge-watchers. As a wry cartoon for adults, the show is a successor to “Archer” and “Bob’s Burgers.”
It’s not like the show was created in a secret Netflix laboratory — it was actually developed over a few years by Bob-Waksberg and animator Lisa Hanawalt — but Reed Hasting’s company knew what it was doing when it bought the show in 2013.
Netflix, which is still primarily a subscription service for non-original video, tracks a wealth of data about its over 50 million users, including not only show popularity and ratings but also every click, pause, skip or closing of the window. Senior data scientist Mohammad Sabah has speculated that the company may begin to “consider things such as volume, colors, and scenery” in the future, reports Gigaom’s Derrik Harris.
Netflix’s recommendation algorithm, which tells users what to watch, is the most obvious use of this data, but the company has also acknowledged using it to inform its original content — and why wouldn’t the company use this powerful tool?
David Carr at the New York Times reported last year that Netflix drew from user data when considering “House of Cards,” directed by David Fincher and starring Kevin Spacey, which would go on to be a major commercial and critical hit. Netflix “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,'” he wrote.
Netflix has an impressive hit rate when it comes to original content. Its 11 original shows and continuations received 45 Emmy nominations in the past two years, with massive critical acclaim for “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black,” as well as success for “Lilyhammer,” “Arrested Development,” “Hemlock Grove,” Derek,” and others.
TV networks, working from relatively tiny market samples and old fashioned human intuition, are at a huge disadvantage. No wonder around 65% of new TV shows are canceled within a season.
Another advantage for Netflix is the ability to target niche audiences. Things as bizarre as “BoJack” or melancholy as “Derek” would never sustain a broad enough audience for network TV, but they work online where all interested viewers can find the content on their own time. The company has already proven that it can take shows that were considered failures via traditional TV models and breathe new life into them. The company revived Fox’s critical darling “Arrested Development” and more recently AMC’s fallen kidnapping drama ” The Killing .”
Other online media providers have adopted the same approach, such as when Yahoo picked up NBC’s “Community .”
If that weren’t enough, Netflix has also shown it’s willing and able to spend lots of money to get good content.
“The cheapest show is $3.8 million an episode,” CAA TV literary agent Peter Micelli said at a panel last year, as reported by Variety’s Andrew Wallenstein. “House of Cards’ started at $4.5 million and Fincher took it way above that. The next series is ‘Hemlock Grove’ and they’re doing that for about $4 million an episode. ‘Orange is the New Black’ is just under $4 million as well. They’re huge budgets shows, they’re doing things in a huge way.”
Netflix stock is up around 790% in the past two years, with profits jumping to $71 million in the second quarter of 2014 compared to $30 million the year before.