The Simple Secret Behind How Netflix Engineers Your Favorite Shows


On-demand media provider Netflix hasn't yet released numbers on how many viewers it drew for the first season of hit series Orange Is the New Black. But we do know this: Netflix CEO Reed Hastings recently said it was the company's most watched show, topping the six million Americans who tuned in for the premiere of House of Cards' second season sometime during the first eight hours it aired.

Some attribute Netflix's success to its model of offering audience-driven, high-quality programming. Reality TV, for example, did horribly on the service, so Netflix got rid of it. The Atlantic's Derek Thompson went so far as to herald the provider as the harbinger of a new "Golden Age" of consumer-driven television. Others say Netflix is just tapping into the basest elements of our psychology: We sit in darkened rooms streaming hours of Breaking Bad because we just can't help ourselves. Psychology Today writer Jordan Gaines Lewis recently defined this helpless "new type of consumer" as "the love child of the Couch Potato and the Channel Surfer, raised by streaming devices and nurtured by entire seasons of shows available at the click of a remote."

The reality, in fact, lies somewhere in between. Netflix is doing something that neither HBO, Hulu nor traditional TV providers have done: Study its viewers and give them only what they want. In addition to recording every play, pause and fast-forward, the provider is using scientists to deliver only the material that will hook us psychologically.

Image credit: Alexis C. Madrigal/ The Atlantic

As it turns out, humans are, in a sense, "wired" for Netflix. Claremont University neuroeconomist Paul Zak recently ran a series of experiments that found that when we watch an emotional show, we identify with the characters just as we'd identify with real people. Our brains and bodies register the action chemically, prompting us to secrete excess levels of two chemicals related to feelings of stress and empathy. Compared to viewing these type of shows, clips with little or no character development or emotional conflict have little to no effect on us. "The bad news," said Zak, "is this stuff means we can be manipulated."

Netflix is master of the serial drama, shows with deep, emotional storylines and multiple relatable, complex characters. Of its five original, Netflix-produced shows, four fall into this category. After waiting 14 years before debuting House of Cards, its first serial drama, the provider has since premiered three hits, two of which are set to renew for a second series or more.

Like any good product, demand for TV increases when supplies are limited. After releasing all 13 episodes of House of Cards at once, the provider found that interest in the show did not wane weeks or even months post-premiere. The same has proved true for Orange Is the New Black, the entire second season of which will become available to watch June 6.

Last year, Netflix surveyed 1,500 adult viewers about their watching habits. Two-thirds said they regularly "binge-watched" shows. Netflix executives hailed the behavior as the empowering new way to watch, calling it the "new normal” in media consumption. This would all be well and good, except for the way the company chose to define a "binge." In the survey, a "binge" meant watching "at least two to three episodes back-to-back every few weeks." In the first weekend of House of Cards' second season, 2% of Netflix subscribers — nearly 700,000 people — watched all 13 episodes back-to-back.

Netflix knows this, of course. Its data analysts look at more than 30 million plays each day, including when a viewer hits pause, rewind or fast-forward. They also see subscribers' ratings: an average of 4 million each day, plus 3 million searches. The provider also checks out the time of day viewers are watching specific shows and on what devices.

In addition to remotely monitoring users' watching behavior and surveying them online, Netflix sent University of Chicago cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken to viewers' homes to study how and when they watch. McCracken asked viewers what type of shows they liked to watch, when and why, what scenes they repeated, and what day and time they preferred to watch certain shows.

From determining the most seasons a show can run down to the maximum number of episode minutes that a user will watch before tuning out, Netflix is curated to keep people coming back hungry for more. Even its most recent feature, an auto-play icon that begins the next episode just as the credits of the last one start rolling, is designed with insatiability in mind. Netflix's mushrooming popularity is not a result of superior programming. It is the culmination of years of scientific research. We binge on Netflix because we've been duped.