Content Design: From Humanists to Algorithms

Television channels such as MTV, Nickelodeon or Discovery, achieved audience successes at the end of the last century through a bold strategy of incorporating humanist experts, who were in charge of designing content based on the characterization of target audiences, producing customized stories and revolutionizing the content industry.
Based on the same principle, companies like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are using Big Data, algorithms and Artificial Intelligence, to produce series like “House of Cards”, “Black Mirror”, “Stranger Things” or “Dark”, transforming again the creation schemes of the audiovisual industry.
Are We Entering the Age of Algorithm-Driven Content?
By: Gabriel E. Levy B.
The success in the 80s and 90s of MTV and Nickelodeon, belonging to the Viacom group, was largely mediated by the support provided by psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists and even psychoanalysts, who helped the writers and creators to build stories tailored to their audiences, reflecting in the narratives, the imaginaries, fears, hopes, beliefs and expectations of the lives of their audiences.
This model was based on the segmentation of audiences into population age groups, i.e. in the case of Nickelodeon Pre-teens and MTV youngsters, which were faithfully characterized by the interdisciplinary team [1].
This is how series like “Beavis and Butt-Head”, “The Real World”, “Rugrats: Diaper Days Adventures” were born, the latter from Nickelodeon, which was designed for a generation that was overprotected by their parents; going around the house was a great adventure, a scheme that years later came into contradiction with Dora the Explorer, a girl who traveled the world alone, which was the result of a generation of brave girls who were empowered by their mothers from an early age.
Creation models based on audience profiling have allowed MTV and Nickelodeon to remain leaders in an increasingly competitive market [2].
Based on the same model, the Discovery group went much further and created channels oriented to the profiling of their audiences. Thus, not only television signals about cars were born, but they also dared to launch programs based on speed cars, car reconstruction and antique cars, while offering channels about animals, home crafts, ancient civilizations and even forensic investigation, all as a result of a detailed profiling of their audiences, having in common the language of non-fiction.
Content Created by Algorithms and Artificial Intelligence
At the beginning of the last decade of this century, Netflix decided to invest 100 million dollars in commissioning two full seasons of the American adaptation of the British miniseries “House of Cards”, which had been produced at the time by the BBC in the 1990s [3].
Netflix’s idea was to adapt the British drama, which originally took place in London, to the political intrigues in the White House, seat of the U.S. government.
Risking such enormous capital without viewers having given approval to a single episode of the adaptation would seem crazy, but the company had great faith in the touchstone of the 21st century: the data derived from the original series.
The strategy was simple in its approach, but enormously complex in its execution. The company hired a company specializing in analyzing data derived from viewing episodes of the British series. The analysis revealed that the people who had watched the complete seasons were also likely to watch movies starring Kevin Spacey (such as American Beauty or The Usual Suspects) and also liked films directed by David Fincher, one of the producers of the new saga and director of the first episodes. In addition, the analyzed data revealed details of tastes about dramatic structures and favorite characters [4].
With all this information, Netflix set out to plan its adaptation in the safest possible way, i.e. in the best VIACOM style, it made a series tailored to the potential audience: adapted to the previous and already known tastes of subscribers, but based only on statistical data this time.
“The producers of House of Cards were confident that the series would succeed among Netflix users thanks to the use of Big Data, since, they used data analysis to create a series based on the tastes of television consumers. Everything surrounding the production and premiere of House of Cards was based on the results obtained through an algorithm in charge of analyzing the tastes and preferences of Netflix users. In this way, Big Data was the “secret” ingredient to achieve an audience success created to the consumer’s taste”[5].
The company, naturally, did not start from scratch: not even the series is an original plot. But the revolution that triggered the strategy is still underway. With the same methodologies, the American versions of series such as Black Mirror were planned, but unlike the previous ones, the information processing was not only carried out by humans, but by Artificial Intelligence systems.
“Thanks to Big Data, Netflix has gone from being a content distributor to becoming one of the most successful producers, earning several Emmy nominations, Golden Globes and other recognized industry awards. It is enough to compare the results of conventional networks with those of the streaming video platform”[6]
Following the success of House of Cards and Black Mirror, Netflix decided to replicate the same model with Stranger Things and Dark [7], but using advanced artificial intelligence algorithms this time, which practically mapped out the Script route for the human writers, leaving very little to the imagination [8].
But while the scope achieved by Netflix with the use of Big Data is revealing, it is clear that data is not the touchstone of television, but only its substrate, the material that will be transformed and enrich its owners. The real magic is created by analytics, which are the data mining, analysis and visualization algorithms, a factor that is highly enhanced with the use of Artificial Intelligence.
These are produced and controlled by specialized companies that are currently beginning to abound in the world and on whose work a good part of the commercial TV business depends, in many cases supported by sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists, maintaining the original formula designed by Viacom in the 80s.
Data analytics do not build a script so far (although there are already experiments in this regard), but give clues to human scriptwriters and producers to generate less risky narratives in an industry where the losses of an unsuccessful series can condemn a production company to bankruptcy.
For the third decade of this century that is just beginning, companies such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney are expected to entrust the design of their major productions to algorithms and Artificial Intelligence, which is a great challenge for the entire industry, especially if the leap is made from the construction of scripts.

The Tyranny of Audience Pleasing
But not everything is a “Fairy Tale”, since the RATING, a variable that has historically served to know the audiovisual consumption habits of viewers and which many commercial television networks base their decisions for the design and programming of content and the results have not necessarily been the best, because for many academic analysts, the Rating triggers the production of the so-called “Trash Content”, referring to audiovisual productions based on very predictable stories, where the component of sex and violence are used to hook audiences, with very conventional plots and resorting in many cases to provoke the so-called human “morbidity”, causing the emergence of thousands of industrially produced contents, where the story is always the same and only the characters and contexts change, something that, although it has not necessarily happened with the previously analyzed cases of Netflix, we could be witnessing the emergence of a type of content template that could be called “algorithmic contents”.
In conclusion, although it is particularly interesting the phenomenon of content creation based on Big Data and Artificial Intelligence by companies like Netflix, the background of the Rating should be a bell that warns that not always what mass audiences want is the best content, because if history has shown anything, is that the best productions have emerged from the disruptive spirit of its creators who dare to propose content out of the ordinary, to innovate and propose new forms and that is difficult to achieve if a code or a machine is dedicated to satisfy the whims of consumers, whose opinion is as variable as the social context itself represents, which is why we cannot allow “Big Data” and “Artificial Intelligence” to replace human creativity and lead us to a new hegemony of prefabricated industrial content.
Photo: Alexander Dummer on

[1] Data Bricks’ analysis of Viacom’s success story: MTV and Nickelodeon
[2] Statista figures on the success of MTV and Nickelodeon
[3] El Confidencial article on the success of House of Cards
[4] El Confidencial article on the success of House of Cards
[5] Specialized article on the use of Big Data in House of Cards
[6] Data Centrics Blog analysis of Netflix’s use of Big Data
[7] Alma Mater Magazine’s analysis of Netflix’s content creation mechanism
[8] Stranger Things case analysis in English language blog_ CrisFoxWrites

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