TV Analytics Controls the Horizontal & the Vertical

The growth of online streaming services has many ringing the death knell for traditional television. However, there's a new, rapidly growing market for TV analytics, where the goal is to measure current viewing habits and predict those of the future.

Netflix is one of the most prominent, using big data to segment its content into over 76,000 categories -- some broad, others very specific. This segmentation breaks down film content into component parts and helps fuel a recommendation engine, where Netflix can say with some certainty that because you liked movies A and G, you'll love N, Q, and Y.

The history of Netflix's algorithm is a fascinating illustration of analytics evolution.

Back in 2006, Netflix launched a competition to see if anyone could come up with a new way to sort and recommend content to consumers -- one that was fully automated, efficient, and accurate. Over the next few years, it awarded cash prizes (around $50,000) to the most impressive ones, eventually handing over a million dollars to a group that managed to improve the star-rating recommendation accuracy by 10%.

But Netflix never even used it. It had already grown beyond that idea, instead looking to take into consideration things like what your Facebook friends watch, and what other customers with similar viewing histories also enjoy. Ultimately, this led to the relatively long and specialized categories that we have today.

Viewing pleasure
Netflix also uses analytics to drive its original programming. It greenlit two seasons of House of Cards (committing $100 million in the process) simply because of data that said David Fincher -- who produces the show and directed the first two episodes -- is popular on the streaming service, as are Kevin Spacey and the original British series. And look at the returns; the show has not only done well on-demand, but it has received multiple awards across both seasons.

The Netflix story shows how one company uses analytics to recommend more of its product to its customers, but other analytics firms are looking at TV viewing on a broader scale.

One British company, named SecondSync, has begun analyzing social networking interactions during TV broadcasts to gauge public opinion on issues from political debates to soap opera preferences. According to the owner of SecondSync, it operates by using natural language processing of TV shows to generate keywords, which are then searched for on Facebook.

Of course, with varied privacy levels, this isn't an easy task, which is why SecondSync gets in bed with Facebook itself to get the job done:

"Facebook used these search terms to calculate anonymised statistics of total discussion volumes for the search terms, aggregated at telecast airing window, daily and minute level," SecondSync explains in a whitepaper. "In addition, Facebook used these search terms to randomly select a small number of anonymised public Facebook posts that SecondSync uses to test the accuracy and quality of its search terms."

This sort of information could be used by advertisers to find out which shows have the most engaged viewers and at which point in the broadcast they're most engaged, or at which point to send out a promotional tweet related to the show.

A handful of companies are already lined up to receive the data, too. SecondSync has deals with the BBC, Channel 4, and Twitter in the UK, as well as NBCUniversal.

What SecondSync is doing for Facebook, Bluefin Labs had been doing with Twitter for over six months, eventually being acquired by Twitter in February. Nielsen's SocialGuide is another Twitter TV analytics service, which looks to differentiate itself by offering daily and weekly rankings for programming.

So it looks like the future is not only bright for analytics firms, but consumers, too. As time goes on, we're not just going to have near-unlimited, on-demand choice with our media viewing, but the content will be (robotically) hand-picked based on our viewing preferences.

The only worry, really, is that we might get locked in a filter bubble, which is an issue we've discussed here before.

What do you think, members? Has Netflix's recommendation engine turned you on to new favorites? Are you happy with the old rabbit ears? Share your opinions below.

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Jon Martindale, Technology Journalist

Jon Martindale is a technology journalist and hardware reviewer, having been covering new developments in the field for most of his professional career. In that time he's tested the latest and greatest releases from the big hardware companies of the world, as well as writing about new software releases, industry movements,and Internet activism.

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Re: Engaged.. with what?
  • 4/12/2014 12:56:30 PM

Analyitic will certainly bring profits to those using it on both sides, the industry and well as the viewers. However, there's still a lot of folks including my house that get a lot of free over the air TV that's not going to be so much analytic driven.  And as costs are driven higher for Netflix, satellite and cable offerings, there may be more that discover the offerings of over the air digital.

Re: Engaged.. with what?
  • 4/10/2014 2:56:43 PM

All I have to say is, thank goodness for the pause button. That comes in handy in this house, especially if we're watching a movie with a complicated plot. We'll sometimes put the movie on pause and do a quick recap with my son, to make sure he's following what's going on (and sometimes to double check WE, the adults, know what's what as well!).

Re: Engaged.. with what?
  • 4/10/2014 2:52:28 PM

I don't know if I agree with that entirely, Michael. I think when the show is popular enough, there's actually a lot of group viewing going on -- people gathered at somebody's place or at a bar. I saw this happen a couple of years ago with one of my daughters and her friends, with the TV show Chuck. That's a whole lot more fun that sitting alone, watching, and tweeting. Then again, my husband and a couple neighbors IM'd each other almost the entire Super Bowl game (much to my son's and my annoyance). Personally, if I'm really interested in a show, I see no reason to have my smartphone or laptop at the ready to talk about it. Call me old-fashioned, I guess. 

Re: Nudging my viewing behavior
  • 4/9/2014 7:30:23 PM


Michael asks

How long have you been using Netflix, Lyndon? Do you think it ought to have a better sense of what you like, by now?


Actually, I haven't been USING Netflix — have repeatedly tried to search for either specific movies (or series) or for listings of "Top Recommendations" or whatever, to no avail. So while we've toyed with joining Netflix, have never done it. Easier to just go to local video chain which seems to have just about anything on DVD.


Re: Engaged.. with what?
  • 4/9/2014 7:01:56 PM

@Beth - this is a big debate in our family. Whenever we watch something together, some of us can't keep quiet - Always talking and making various comments about what just happened, what will happen next and what the charactor should do or say.

Meanwhile, the other half of the family, which is the half that takes after me, really just wants to listen. So there's another large set of comments along the lines of SHHH! and "can't you be quiet?"

I agree with Michael that the talkers are being heard via Twitter and Facebook. As for myself, I prefer the Netflix model which allows for intricate modeling of my tastes without forcing me to be distracted during the show I'm supposed to be enjoying.

Re: Engaged.. with what?
  • 4/9/2014 5:09:36 PM

I think the real-time social paradigm shift is upon us, Beth, and has been for some time. It's not enough to log on after a show's over and say, "Wow! That was awesome!!" You have to tweet as soon as the shocker happens, because your phone is never out of your grasp. 

I think this has been the case for at least two years, now. Would you disagree?

Re: Nudging my viewing behavior
  • 4/9/2014 5:07:53 PM

How long have you been using Netflix, Lyndon? Do you think it ought to have a better sense of what you like, by now? I have had my TV and movie viewing influenced most by friends and colleagues, personally, but I'm not a Netflix user. 

Engaged.. with what?
  • 4/9/2014 4:39:33 PM

Does anybody else find it rather ironic that companies are looking to see how engaged viewers are with a TV broadcast by measuring what they're saying on Facebook about the program -- as they're watching it. If the programming was truly of interest, wouldn't they be glued to the TV screen rather than on Facebook? Or am I missing something here?

Nudging my viewing behavior
  • 4/9/2014 3:36:15 PM


In his blog post, Jon asks

Has Netflix's recommendation engine turned you on to new favorites? 


I'd have to say, No, so far. Some of the best recommendations have actually come from here (A2) and assorted mentions in media I read (e.g., Huffington Post) plus my own searches ("100 Best" lists and that sort of thing).

However, I think the methodology probably will amount to something. It just seems to need more work.