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The way Netflix recommends shows and movies might surprise you

Published Sep 17th, 2019 10:05PM EDT
Image: Sascha Steinbach/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

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It’s practically impossible to keep up with the sheer volume of new titles that hit Netflix every single month. From original programming to a revolving door of popular TV shows and movies, Netflix in September alone will introduce nearly 100 new titles for subscribers. And when you add that to an already sizable library of content, figuring out to watch can sometimes be a bit daunting.

Given the absolute avalanche of content Netflix houses, many subscribers simply rely upon the streaming giant’s recommendation algorithm to determine what programs to watch next. And from my personal experience, the algorithm tends to be spot-on more often than it isn’t. Interestingly enough, the recommendation algorithm isn’t entirely based on what Netflix thinks you might enjoy. Every so often, the algorithm will try and present a program that Netflix wants you to give a shot.

This interesting tidbit comes courtesy of Marc Randolph, the original CEO and one of the co-founders of Netflix. Speaking to Business Insider, Randolph reveals that Netflix — back when the company was still sending out DVDs — optimized their recommendation algorithm based on subscriber tastes, available inventory, and titles the company wanted to be seen more widely.

“We had to find a way to recommend items that weren’t the easy ones that everyone thought about, which was new releases, but ones that they might like even better that we also happen to have in stock or have better economic availability,” Randolph told BI. “I think — I’m not part of the company now — that’s never changed.”

It certainly stands to reason that Randolph’s speculation in this regard is right on the money. Every so often, it’s overwhelmingly clear that Netflix wants to push a certain program, with the 2018 release of Bird Box being a prime example of a title that occupied user splash screens even if it wasn’t quite similar to other titles they enjoyed.

Indeed, Netflix — despite its vast library of originals — is always looking for the next big show to implant itself upon the mainstream. To this point, there were rumblings that Netflix executives a few years back were frustrated that Ozarks — despite being immensely popular — didn’t quite achieve the level of mainstream buzz as Breaking Bad or Stranger Things.

One interesting tidbit you may not be aware of is that the title art that subscribers see when scrolling through Netflix can vary wildly from user to user.

For instance, take a look at all the different screengrabs one might see for Stranger Things. What any one user sees will depend on their viewing history:

Image source: Netflix

Netflix touched on this very topic in a 2017 blog post where it used the film Good Will Hunting as an example:

Here we might personalize this decision based on how much a member prefers different genres and themes. Someone who has watched many romantic movies may be interested in Good Will Hunting if we show the artwork containing Matt Damon and Minnie Driver, whereas, a member who has watched many comedies might be drawn to the movie if we use the artwork containing Robin Williams, a well-known comedian.

On a related note, there’s also a chance that Netflix in the future may let humans help with the curation process.

Returning to Randolph — who has a book out today — BGR sat down for an interview with him recently and gleaned some interesting tidbits, including the fact that ads will likely never appear on Netflix, despite how much money they could yield for the company. Also, if you’re looking for some of the best shows on Netflix that you may not have heard of, you’ll definitely want to take a look at some of the titles listed here.

Yoni Heisler Contributing Writer

Yoni Heisler has been writing about Apple and the tech industry at large with over 15 years of experience. A life long expert Mac user and Apple expert, his writing has appeared in Edible Apple, Network World, MacLife, Macworld UK, and TUAW.

When not analyzing the latest happenings with Apple, Yoni enjoys catching Improv shows in Chicago, playing soccer, and cultivating new TV show addictions.