Content—be it news, entertainment, advertisement, or some hybrid therein—is at its best when it pushes us in some way.
The best journalism keeps us informed (ideally, but not always, through objective means), pushing us to see world as it truly is. Great art inspires us, pushing us to dream big and see the world as it could be. And compelling marketing persuades us to take action, pushing us to see our connection to the world through the lens of a given product, service, or brand promise.
But for every content-to-consumer push, there is an equal and opposite pull. In other words, the very manner in which we consume information necessarily shapes the substance and scope of the content intended to reach and engage us.
On some level, this has always been the case—even prehistoric cave painters probably experimented with pigments to find the most reader-friendly paint options, right? But thanks to the likes of Google analytics, today’s content creators are equipped with increasingly powerful and actionable data concerning readers’/viewers’/users’ habits and preferences.
Case in point: Today’s metrics on online streaming habits are tomorrow’s blueprint for critically acclaimed, viewer-subscribed, serialized Web-TV shows. At least that’s the bet being wagered by Netflix (and, to a lesser extent, Hulu).
Although Netflix had previously dabbled in original content creation to complement its content-delivery business model, the company arguably came into its own in that space with the launch of this year’s House of Cards, a Beltway-based reboot of the U.K. TV show of the same name. Sure, the backing of Hollywood heavyweights, like star Kevin Spacey and director/producer David Fincher (both popular on Netflix), contributed to the success of the show. But Netflix’s gamble on House of Cards was far more calculated: It took what it knew from its own metrics on serialized TV-show streaming habits and married it with Fincher’s vision for the actual creative concepts and storylines of the show.
The result was a Netflix-exclusive, stream-only series whose character development and pacing was custom-made for consumers’ preferred means of serialized TV streaming: binge viewing. Knowing that all 13 episodes of the first season were to be released simultaneously, the creators of House of Cards dispensed entirely with flashbacks and recaps and instead built their show with an unapologetic narrative tunnel-vision, constantly driving the plot and characters forward, for better or worse. That narrative hook worked so well with the subplots of ruthless, backroom D.C. politics that I doubt I was the only one who had to summon deep reserves of will power not to click “play next” after each cliff-hanger episode ending—and that I was the only one who ignored his will power and indulged in an occasional multi-episode binge.
For the uninitiated, here’s the season 1 trailer:
Regardless of critical quibbles concerning Spacey’s inconsistent southern accent or the merits of the show otherwise, Netflix tapped into something very interesting here by so thoroughly interweaving message and medium. (Netflix’s more recent relaunch of the cult-hit Arrested Development is yet another noteworthy riff on this new concept. And that trend seems to be continuing.)
So, if House of Cards marks a paradigm shift in the push-pull dynamics of content generation, can we expect to see a proliferation of similar efforts to mine data on consumer wants and needs, and translate the results into increasingly customized content across all forms of media and delivery channels?
I think it’s a safe bet to say we will. What do you think?