A new report from Wall Street firm Cowen & Co. says that Netflix debuted nearly 676 hours of original programming in the third quarter of 2018, more than double the amount of originals launched in the same period of 2017 (289 hours), and up 50% from the 452 hours in Q2 2018. To put it in binge perspective, you’d have to watch Netflix for almost a month straight to get through it all. Of course you wouldn’t, and Netflix knows that.
At the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit this week, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos said as much. “The notion that things get lost on Netflix is silly,” Sarandos said. “Things get found on Netflix. People say, ‘You have so much to watch.’ Yeah, but it’s not all for you.”
Netflix doesn’t want to be HBO, IFC, Comedy Central, or NBC–it wants to be all of them, all at once. The company line is and has always been that it uses your own viewing habits to better target new programming your way. But the almighty algorithm is hardly that altruistic. This becomes abundantly clear every time you turn it on and it’s still still still trying to get you to watch Roseanne. Everyone’s Netflix feed has at least one fetch. Mine is Killer Women with Piers Morgan. STOP TRYING TO MAKE IT HAPPEN, TED.
It’s a mistake to think the algorithm is for you. It’s there to serve the interests of Netflix, which are to get you to watch whatever it wants you to watch. This has always been the way. In the DVD days it would recommend what it had sitting in the warehouse, versus what you actually wanted. It never had enough copies of what everyone wanted to watch. On the bright side, this kind of selective targeting can work wonderfully well. It’s the optimistic side of the ole’ Steve Jobs adage, “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
The company credits this approach with finding wide audiences and cultural relevance for shows and films that may not have otherwise gained such exposure. It answers questions–from media, fans, and Hollywood folk–about getting lost in a sea of options by saying that as opposed to waiting for people to find content, its algorithm goes out and finds the audience for them. Director Ava DuVernay told Vulture in June that the platform actually exposes so many more people to more filmmakers by simply giving them a forum at all. “When you talk about getting lost, [it] prioritizes a certain privilege that women filmmakers, filmmakers of color, and certainly women filmmakers of color–specifically black women–don’t have,” she said. “My concern isn’t being lost, my concern is being somewhere, period.”
Complaining about streaming service UX is like complaining about the weather. It’s there and there’s almost nothing any of us can do about it. Some await a white knight to figure out how to make an Apple News-style aggregator of all the available programming across all our streaming options. This sounds idyllic given that we’re now bouncing among at least three services–Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and whatever Disney will soon be unleashing–until we remember that each of those streaming services have exactly zero incentive to participate in such a thing.
So we’re stuck. Stuck with a never-ending, ever-updated stream of new entertainment feeding us programming that veers between a bit of what we like and a lot of what they want us to like. The challenge remains remembering which is which.