Is House of Cards the Future of Cultural Programming?

Last week, Barry Hessenius interviewed Jamie Bennett, chief of staff and director of public affairs at the NEA, about his thoughts on the arts and culture landscape as Rocco Landesman’s chairmanship comes to a close.

When asked about the most critical issues facing the field in the near-to-mid term future, Jamie responded with some thoughts on preference discovery engines:

[W]e have to look at preference discovery engines.  There are three basic kinds: Amazon’s, based on patterns of behavior (people who bought X also bought Z); Facebook’s, based on personal relationships (I am friends with X; X likes Y; I might like Y); and Pandora’s, based on inherent qualities (song A has X, Y, and Z characteristics, and so does song B).  I think if we could create a cross-disciplinary Pandora, it would revolutionize audience development.  Can you imagine an algorithm that takes a person who listens to jazz music and enjoyed reading The Color Purple and suggests that that person might also enjoy seeing Bill T. Jones’s company dance?  It would be revolutionary.

I agree with Jamie that the field needs to get smarter about preference discovery as a mechanism for audience development, and that technology has a huge role to play. I only half agree with his analysis of the landscape, however.

Unmentioned here is the most powerful, accurate, and widely used preference discovery engine currently in existence: Netflix. You could argue that Netflix falls into the “Amazon” category, in that it relies on patterns of behavior. But Netflix’s approach is vastly more sophisticated and relies on far more data than past purchasing history. It considers ratings, viewing behavior (including things like where and for how long users pause a movie), queue construction, and other user-driven behaviors. But it also cross-references that massive data set with a Pandora-like understanding of content characteristics (e.g., it knows that The Big Lebowski is directed by the Coen Brothers, stars Jeff Bridges, and is considered a “cult comedy”).

This is the land of Big Data, and Netflix puts it to practical use like few others. Telling me that because I liked The Color Purple I might like Bill T. Jones isn’t so impressive. Telling me that because I liked Sports Night I might like Margin Call (as Netflix recently advised me) is a more ambitious leap requiring subtler analysis. My hunch is that it’s also more likely to be accurate.

Kevin Spacey in House of Cards But where things really get interesting - and where the implications for the arts get deeper and more complicated - is when this analysis is used to drive new content development. That’s exactly what happened with Netflix’s new original series House of Cards. As Andrew Leonard wrote in a feature on Salon:

Netflix has been explicit about its plans to exploit its Big Data capabilities to influence its programming choices. “House of Cards” is one of the first major test cases of this Big Data-driven creative strategy. For almost a year, Netflix executives have told us that their detailed knowledge of Netflix subscriber viewing preferences clinched their decision to license a remake of the popular and critically well regarded 1990 BBC miniseries. Netflix’s data indicated that the same subscribers who loved the original BBC production also gobbled down movies starring Kevin Spacey or directed by David Fincher. Therefore, concluded Netflix executives, a remake of the BBC drama with Spacey and Fincher attached was a no-brainer, to the point that the company committed $100 million for two 13-episode seasons.

That’s right: Netflix bet $100 million on its first-ever experiment with algorithmically-determined original programming. It’s too early to say whether the bet will pay off financially, but early reviews suggest the show itself is pretty darn good.

This is pretty different from how we do it in the arts, right? Any artistic director with an ounce of integrity would cringe at the idea that market research should drive programming decisions.

Yet we’re fooling ourselves if we believe we’re entirely “above” such things. When a ballet company presents its annual Nutcracker it’s doing the same thing as Netflix, just in a cookie-cutter manner and guided by received wisdom rather than cutting-edge data crunching.

At the same time, I must admit that I’ve seen some damn fine Nutcrackers. If they aren’t pushing any envelopes, they can still be expertly and lovingly crafted by artisan choreographers.

This raises a critical question that is at once timeless and extremely timely:

What exactly is the dividing line between respecting your audience’s taste and shameless pandering?

With all the hand-wringing over dwindling arts audiences, should it be blasphemy to suggest that we try harder to give them what they want? That’s what every other business on earth does, after all. Of course, a mission-driven arts organization is, in theory, serving a higher (or at least different) purpose as well. If you’re going to descend into full-bore populism, why stop at the Nutcracker or House of Cards? Why not produce another Jersey Shore and actually make a buck or two?

This is a real challenge, but a false dichotomy. I’m certain we can pivot towards greater respect for our audience’s taste preferences without compromising our artistic integrity. What’s more, there’s no reason that accessible art can’t still challenge its audience and move the needle of mainstream aesthetic expectations. As I said in my own Barry’s Blog interview a few years ago:

[T]he tension between aesthetic integrity and popular appeal is overblown. All too often this ostensibly irreconcilable conflict serves as a convenient excuse for vapid artistic pretension, incompetent marketing, or both. Shakespeare was the most popular playwright of his day, and he sold a lot of tickets.

I’m guessing House of Cards will bag a few viewers as well.

The next decade will undoubtedly see the emergence of preference discovery technology in the arts in a big way. How much that matters depends partly on what role you play in the ecosystem. Are you a modern dance company formed around the vision and brand of a specific choreographer? If so, then you can probably benefit from the insights this tech provides without letting it dictate your creative choices. But what if you’re a regional arts organization with a mission to “serve the community”? In that case, I’d argue you ought to take this stuff very seriously indeed.

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10 Responses to “Is House of Cards the Future of Cultural Programming?”

  1. Shoshana:

    I am having some bubbling thoughts due to your take on this topic. I completely understand that artist integrity has to be considered, however, we can create a balance between pandering to our audiences and going out into the artistic left field where audiences do not want to be.

    Algorithms could be quite useful, but in all the hub bub on this brilliant discovery, we seem to be forgetting that back in the day, the customer services, sales, box office staff used to suggest other offerings to their patrons based solely on knowing their audience member’s tastes personally. There are talented people that can serve as an algorithm if they would take the time to get to know their audience members and keep track of preferences in their databases. Old fashioned up-selling should not be ruled out in favor of a computer attempting to fill this void.

    Thank you for helping to percolate my thoughts. Now I have a blog post brewing!

  2. Aaron:

    Just to play devil’s advocate, really good programmers of live art, and really good artists make algorithmic decisions all the time. We call it vision. We think about what moves us as makers, we think about who might see the work, and we think about how to both honor and challenge our intentions, our viewers’ expectations and our need to sell tickets. I’d argue that when more money gets spent on artists making art, and on audiences (especially younger or poorer ones) getting cheaper tickets, the work will be better off. Investing in corporate strategies to sell the work without making the work better undermines the field.

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  4. Pete Miller:

    Smart post. Because you mention Rocco, your thoughts reinforce for me what I see as a key way to address Rocco’s over supply issue, which is that I think we need piles more theatre.

    I’m convinced we need 5 to 10 times the volume of highly accessible, taste pandering theatre we have now. We need it to be a big, friendly front door into playgoing, and a space in which many people will spend all their playgoing lives and in which playgoing can be understood as an ordinary part of life for ordinary people. Some of those people will discover they love live acting and move on to more high art theatre. Most won’t, and that’s fine.

    I will make a quick analogy to the film world. For every Lincoln or The King’s Speech, there are scores of Die Hard [numeral]’s, Ted’s, and amazing Spider Men. Theatre would be more secure and more socially relevant if the playmaking apparatus we have now rested on a broader base of live popular plays.

  5. Leonard Jacobs:

    Spot-on as always, and it stirred up two (well, 12) thoughts in me.

    One: Who’ll build this preference discovery engine for the arts — what would be their (profit-centered) motivation? My guess and fear is the arts hurdles will vastly differ from studio/film distribution hurdles. Arts content distributors = more diffuse, no?

    Two: Would you agree such an engine must be vast — i.e., nationwide, yet localize-able — so that its subtle effects, as you note with regard to Netflix, can best be put to use?

  6. Adam Huttler:

    @Leonard - really good questions. I think I can answer them both at the same time.

    I expect that any preference discovery engines that emerge will have to be able to crunch data from many, many content providers. Almost no individual arts organization has enough audience data to make something like this work.

    So… in the commercial space, I could imagine this as a service offered by someone like TRG.

    In terms of non-commercial providers, this is surely one of the long-term goals behind Project Audience. Aside from that, don’t be too surprised if you see Fractured Atlas playing around in this space sometime in the next year or two. Specifically,’s rocking a pretty potent multi-organization data warehouse under the hood.

  7. Alexander:

    I will preface my comment by saying that this is an extremely complex and nuanced conversation, and I find myself simultaneously agreeing with a great deal of what you say while retaining a number of reservations about the suggestion that artists should base their content around already entrenched taste preferences. Your point about Shakespeare is well made, and I certainly don’t think that art should aim to be inaccessible or to alienate people, but I also think that art has always had a different purpose than the entertainment industry has. I think that, while it can be informative and useful to look to success in the private sector for information and inspiration, the distinction between the arts and entertainment is a significant one. Historically art has addressed challenging issues and dealt with themes that were only later picked up by mainstream or popular culture. The reason art isn’t tied to profit margins and shareholder/investor interest is that artists need to have the freedom to take risks that producers in the private sector often cannot or are not willing to take. I work at New York Live Arts and I think that you would be hard pressed to say that the artists that we present on our season are providing easily accessible content that draws heavily from well researched audience interests, and yet most of our fall shows were sold out. I think that good work is good work regardless of whether it references or utilizes popular tastes. Is the legacy and purpose of art not to push us forward? Has art not historically been a tastemaker, influencing popular trends and infiltrating the mainstream? I will acknowledge that of course it is possible to create interesting and challenging work that draws from popular sources, but I think that it is dangerous to suggest that such a singular goal or idea should be the aim of all artists and arts organizations. At the same time I don’t think that artists should be afraid of drawing from pop culture. Thank you for the thought provocation.

  8. Catherine:

    Great Article - thank you. As data collection programs are created we should all use them. The more data collected, the better decisions we can make. Yes, artists, presenters, producers, programmers, curators, etc… all use an algorithm based on something they’ve created…some are more complex than Netflix, some are not. Information is freedom; how we use it defines us and not the other way around. Netflix used their data and algorithm to create a main stream popular show, awesome, that’s one purpose of their data collection. There are endless ways to use the information. I believe numerous media and data savvy orgs and internet sites have initiated the change. My organization is getting to know our audience through the social media analytics and its our marketing that is changing and choices of how we market the art. We are not changing the art but the way we “sell” it. In any event, I’m interested in watching what people will do with the data. I would like a data collection service for teh performing arts as complex at Netflix which has an option to customize the algorithm. Each person will use the information to inspire, to sell, to create, to destroy…there are endless possibilities. Not having a data collection site for the performing arts ensures that we don’t have options - who likes that? Not I. Nods to your ongoing commitment to “keep us ahead of the curve,” or at least caught up.

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