How to Use Data to Make a Hit TV Show: Sebastian Wernicke (Transcript)

Sebastian Wernicke – Data scientist

Roy Price is a man that most of you have probably never heard about, even though he may have been responsible for 22 somewhat mediocre minutes of your life on April 19, 2013. He may have also been responsible for 22 very entertaining minutes, but not very many of you. And all of that goes back to a decision that Roy had to make about three years ago.

So you see, Roy Price is a senior executive with Amazon Studios. That’s the TV production company of Amazon. He’s 47 years old, slim, spiky hair, describes himself on Twitter as “movies, TV, technology, tacos.” And Roy Price has a very responsible job, because it’s his responsibility to pick the shows, the original content that Amazon is going to make. And of course that’s a highly competitive space. I mean, there are so many TV shows already out there, that Roy can’t just choose any show. He has to find shows that are really, really great. So in other words, he has to find shows that are on the very right end of this curve here.

So this curve here is the rating distribution of about 2,500 TV shows on the website IMDB, and the rating goes from one to 10, and the height here shows you how many shows get that rating. So if your show gets a rating of nine points or higher, that’s a winner. Then you have a top two percent show. That’s shows like “Breaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones,” “The Wire,” so all of these shows that are addictive, whereafter you’ve watched a season, your brain is basically like, “Where can I get more of these episodes?” That kind of show.

On the left side, just for clarity, here on that end, you have a show called “Toddlers and Tiaras” which should tell you enough about what’s going on on that end of the curve.

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Now, Roy Price is not worried about getting on the left end of the curve, because I think you would have to have some serious brainpower to undercut “Toddlers and Tiaras.” So what he’s worried about is this middle bulge here, the bulge of average TV, you know, those shows that aren’t really good or really bad, they don’t really get you excited. So he needs to make sure that he’s really on the right end of this.

So the pressure is on, and of course it’s also the first time that Amazon is even doing something like this, so Roy Price does not want to take any chances. He wants to engineer success. He needs a guaranteed success, and so what he does is, he holds a competition.

So he takes a bunch of ideas for TV shows, and from those ideas, through an evaluation, they select eight candidates for TV shows, and then he just makes the first episode of each one of these shows and puts them online for free for everyone to watch. And so when Amazon is giving out free stuff, you’re going to take it, right? So millions of viewers are watching those episodes.

What they don’t realize is that, while they’re watching their shows, actually, they are being watched. They are being watched by Roy Price and his team, who record everything. They record when somebody presses play, when somebody presses pause, what parts they skip, what parts they watch again. So they collect millions of data points, because they want to have those data points to then decide which show they should make. And sure enough, so they collect all the data, they do all the data crunching, and an answer emerges, and the answer is, “Amazon should do a sitcom about four Republican US Senators.” They did that show.

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So does anyone know the name of the show? (Audience: “Alpha House.”) Yes, “Alpha House,” but it seems like not too many of you here remember that show, actually, because it didn’t turn out that great. It’s actually just an average show, actually — literally, in fact, because the average of this curve here is at 7.4, and “Alpha House” lands at 7.5, so a slightly above average show, but certainly not what Roy Price and his team were aiming for.

Meanwhile, however, at about the same time, at another company, another executive did manage to land a top show using data analysis, and his name is Ted, Ted Sarandos, who is the Chief Content Officer of Netflix, and just like Roy, he’s on a constant mission to find that great TV show, and he uses data as well to do that, except he does it a little bit differently.

So instead of holding a competition, what he did — and his team of course — was they looked at all the data they already had about Netflix viewers, you know, the ratings they give their shows, the viewing histories, what shows people like, and so on. And then they use that data to discover all of these little bits and pieces about the audience: what kinds of shows they like, what kind of producers, what kind of actors. And once they had all of these pieces together, they took a leap of faith, and they decided to license not a sitcom about four Senators but a drama series about a single Senator. You guys know the show? Yes, “House of Cards,” and Netflix of course, nailed it with that show, at least for the first two seasons. “House of Cards” gets a 9.1 rating on this curve, so it’s exactly where they wanted it to be.

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