Posted: Marcus Varner | May 28, 2015

News

Giving the Green Light: How Consumer Reviews are Deciding Which TV Shows and Movies Get Made

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How many times have you left your cineplex lamenting how much better a movie could've been had a tone-deaf studio executive not meddled with it? Somewhere in there, the words "If they would've just..." probably crossed your mind, followed by a brilliant idea of your making that would've totally saved the whole picture.

If this describes you, then your big shot might finally be here. As more television shows and movies are consumed via online streaming, streaming services like Netflix and Amazon are using the medium to tap directly into viewers' opinions and tastes.

Of course, filmmakers and television networks have long sought to gather their viewers' opinions to create programming that would draw the biggest audiences. For decades now, select groups of consumers have been allowed a say in whether they watched a movie or television or not (Ex: Nielsen Ratings) and whether it was any good or not (Ex: test screenings and focus groups). As long as blogs and social media have been around, consumers have had the ability to weigh in on the movies and TV shows they consume. RottenTomatoes and Metacritic have long taken into consideration the reviews of average joes alongside the likes of Siskel and Ebert.

So what's different about this new trend? For the first time, producers are getting viewers in on the act before production even begins. They're using consumer reviews to bring their viewers deeper into the creation of programming than ever before. And this time, it's not just for those who are lucky enough to be invited to test screenings or test groups. These companies want the input of every viewer and this means that consumers are about to get more say in what they see.

1. Viewer Reviews

The most obvious place that producers like Amazon or Netflix look to gauge consumer interest or disinterest is in consumer reviews on their sites. If you've used the star ratings features on these sites, you know that it has an immediate effect on the types of shows and movies that they recommend to you. What you might not notice is that these sites aggregate your rating and the thousands of ratings from other viewers into their decisions of which movies and shows to add to or remove from their offerings.

2. Viewer Behavior

Even if you're not the rating type, to get involved in this process, you need only go to your Netflix account and click on play. Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon are watching every move you make on their services. According by a 2014 report from The Diffusion Group, the average Netflix watcher takes in 93 minutes of programming per day. During that time, they track every time anyone plays, pauses, fast-forwards, rewinds, searches, or rates anything. They track what time they watch anything and on what devices.
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All of this data, it turns out, tells these services a lot about what consumers want. For instance, three years ago when Netflix was considering producing the political thriller series House of Cards (an unprecedented move at the time), they turned to their vast bank of viewer data, explains David Carr at the New York Times:

"[Netflix] already knew that a healthy share had streamed the work of Mr. [David] Fincher, the director of 'The Social Network', from beginning to end. And films featuring Mr. [Kevin] Spacey had always done well, as had the British version of House of Cards. With those three circles of interest, Netflix was able to find a Venn diagram intersection that suggested that buying the series would be a very good bet on original programming."

Instead of trying to guess at what consumers might want to watch-which is, unfortunately, what the major networks have to do every season-Netflix had so much data that the decision to produce House of Cards was a no-brainer. And the results speak for themselves. Not only was the series the first of its kind, but it has since been nominated for countless awards, including Golden Globes for best drama series and Emmys for outstanding directing, and has taken home awards for best actor, best actress, outstanding directing, and outstanding cinematography, among many others.

Instead of having a few out-of-touch studio executives in a room, it's as if millions of viewers are in that room unwittingly participating in this discussion about which projects should be greenlit next. This data is encouraging Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon to take on ambitious projects like Daredevil, Transparent, and the upcoming Sense8, and if awards and critical and viewer reviews are any indication, this process is creating content that's better.

3. Preview Reviews

Finally, everyone knows that their every move online is being tracked (at least, they should know) and the sites use that data to improve the experience. But what if you could be even more directly involved in the process of selecting which series or movies get the greenlight?

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Amazon Studios, makers of the recent award-winning series Transparent, are taking viewer participation a step further by letting viewers give feedback and vote on scripts, storyboards, pilots, and trailers for movies and shows that haven't even been made yet. Programs that pass muster can go on to become full-blown series or movies.

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This isn't just a gimmick to engage consumers. Getting viewers involved helps Amazon weed out weak projects and ensures a built-in audience and critical mass of positive reviews once they do produce a full series or movie. That translates to better entertainment for viewers and better returns for online streaming services. It's that rare win-win scenario.

Giving the Green Light

This shift represents a significant change in the way companies view the opinions of their audiences. With Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon increasingly putting out their own content, this ability to tap directly into viewers will give them a huge advantage over traditional television networks who are still stuck with only focus groups and Nielsen ratings.

Is entertainment on it's way to becoming a more democratic process? Will we soon have only ourselves to blame if a show or movie disappoints us? Netflix and other series have made it clear that, while they use consumer feedback and behavioral data to choose which projects they will greenlight, the production process will not be run democratically. Directors, writers, and producers will still make the creative decisions that bring a show or film to life.

And that makes this a nearly unheard-of win-win-win scenario.

 

Have you fallen in love with Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu Plus? Maybe you're less than impressed. Make your voice heard today and leave your review!

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Written by Marcus Varner

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