In Andrew Leonard’s piece this week, he argues that Netflix’s ability to track and analyse consumer viewing habits will increasingly influence their programming choices, and that this reliance on data will detrimentally affect content, resulting in homogeneity and predictably. However he also says “one could argue that Netflix’s strategy is only a slightly more sophisticated version of what’s already been in place for, well, forever. We wouldn’t be seeing teenage vampires or zombies every time we turn on the TV if the money that bankrolls the content creation business hadn’t already decided that’s what we want to see.”
This is an important point. If what we’re concerned about is good content that only appeals to a small audience getting buried or never made, that’s been the reality for TV and movies for a long time. But good content does still exist and find support. If anything, Netflix’s approach could be an improvement because the feedback they are getting is a lot more accurate, and their distribution model isn’t based on mass appeal. In fact, the more niche audiences they can attract the better from their standpoint – not only to bring more people into their system, but to increase the data set they can work with for recommendations and content creation. Leonard rightly asserts that the scale and accuracy of digitally enabled data collection mark a new era of content crafting, but it remains to be seen what impact it will have.
Taking the concept to the wider creative industries, including book publishing, the most important thing to remember is that the data collected is not prescriptive. It doesn’t decide how it is used; people do. It’s also important to remember that there has always been a spectrum of ‘good’ versus ‘not good’ content, which is subjective of course, as well as mass versus niche appeal. A hundred different publishers can have a hundred different acquisition strategies, and so it’s likely they would have a hundred different approaches to audience data, including not using it all. Decision making around content creation has always been informed by data. The important thing for publishers will be to recognise this new form data as one tool among many, and ultimately that they are the ones who decide what direction they go in. For some, that will mean maximising commercial success, for which audience data will be more influential, but others have different goals. Data collection can still serve them in achieving those goals, but it doesn’t spell the end of creativity as we know it. To return to the TV industry, in the two years since this article was written, we have arguably moved further into a golden age of production, with Netflix (House of Cards, Orange Is The New Black, Narcos, Jessica Jones etc.) and even Amazon (Transparent) at the heart of it. If we could see the same boom in books, I hardly think publishers would be complaining.