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Here’s how Netflix’s top brass is trying to find the next Black Mirror

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Jun 11, 2018, 4:32 PM EDT

When Netflix goes hunting for its next big genre hit, it follows a sort of magic formula that eludes conventional TV studios. Always scanning our viewing habits to detect patterns that can help scratch an undiscovered genre itch, the world’s highest-valued entertainment company admits it leans heavily on data to learn why a lot of the same people are binging a dystopian show like Black Mirror and a stuck-in-time comedy like Groundhog Day.

But at the end of the day, Netflix execs say the company relies far more on flexibility, freedom, and instinct when it goes searching for the next Black Mirror or Stranger Things.

“It’s 70 percent gut and 30 percent data,” Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, recently explained to New York Magazine for a sprawling look into how the studio behind binge-able shows like The Punisher, Lost in Space, The OA, and Altered Carbon scans the zeitgeist in search of undiscovered genre tastes.

Pulling the trigger on a great idea is mostly about “informed hunches and intuition,” he added. “Data either reinforces your worst notion or it just supports what you want to do, either way.”

Olivia De Carlo, a director for Netflix’s originals product launch team, used the example of Black Mirror to show how Netflix does use all that data. Explaining that Black Mirror is especially popular with two distinct viewer groups, or “clusters,” De Carlo said Netflix noticed the show seemed to be getting a lot of views from people who also watched the 1993 comedy Groundhog Day, as well as J.J. Abrams’ Lost.

“On the surface, if you thought about Groundhog Day with Black Mirror, you might not find an obvious similarity,” De Carlo said. “Lost and Black Mirror is also a stretch. But when you look at these in aggregate, you can see this through-line of supernatural or extreme worlds, and somehow that clustering tends to make more sense.”

In other words, the service seems to use the info it collects to detect themes that appeal to people in ways that, at first glance, defy conventional genre definitions.

Not only does Netflix hide its viewing numbers from the public; it also keeps them from many of the people involved in making the shows themselves. “I ask for it and never get it,” Bright producer Eric Newman jokingly told the magazine. “I am always like, ‘Who do people like? You guys know everything!’”

It’s done, said Sarandos, to allow creatives the sort of freedom that’s hard to come by in a TV world long dominated by Nielsen ratings. Instead of focusing on what people have watched in the past, he explained, Netflix wants its showrunners, writers, and actors to worry about making a great show — and enjoying the process.

After all, he joked, “[i]t’s just as likely that a 75-year-old man in Denmark likes Riverdale as my teenage kids.”

What favorite shows and movies go together like peanut butter and jelly in your head — even if they come from very different genres? Let us know what we (and maybe even Netflix) are missing out on in the comments. 

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