by Doctor Science
Atlantic reporter Alexis Madrigal wondered how Netflix comes up with their weirdly specific genres, so he (with the help of Atlantic contributor Ian Bogost) reverse-engineered Netflix's classification system, and how its 76,897 (!!) genres are put together.
Along the way, they discovered a strange pattern in the data: the footsteps of [dum dum dum dum-dum] Perry Mason. Madrigal thinks it's a glitch, a ghost in the machine, but I propose to connect all this up, Your Honor.
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After he'd worked on his reverse-engineering for a while, Madrigal got to talk to Todd Yellin, the Netflix VP who developed what the company calls the "altgenre" system.
As our interview concluded, I pulled my computer back out and showed Yellin this one last chart. Take a good look at it. Something should stand out.I commented:
Sitting atop the list of mostly expected Hollywood stars is Raymond Burr, who starred in the 1950s television series Perry Mason. Then, at number seven, we find Barbara Hale, who starred opposite Burr in the show.
How can Hale and Burr outrank Meryl Streep and Doris Day, not to mention Samuel L. Jackson, Nicholas Cage, Fred Astaire, Sean Connery, and all these other actors in the top few dozen?
Granted, the existence of all these Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale altgenres doesn't mean that Netflix users are having these movies pop up all the time. They are much more likely to get Action Movies Starring Bruce Willis.
But, then, why have all these genres?
What was the deal? I asked Yellin.
Actually, I had a theory, which I told him. "In the DVD days, Perry Mason fans ordered a ton of Perry Mason, one after the other after the other," I said. "It created sufficient demand that you guys thought there should be categories."
The vexing conclusion is that when human and machine intelligences combine, some things happen that we cannot understand.
That is not an accurate theory, Yellin told me. That's just not how it worked.
On the other hand, no one — not even Yellin — is quite sure why there are so many altgenres that feature Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale. It's inexplicable with human logic. It's just something that happened.
I tried on a bunch of different names for the Perry Mason thing: ghost, gremlin, not-quite-a-bug. What do you call the something-in-the-code-and-data which led to the existence of these microgenres?
The vexing, remarkable conclusion is that when companies combine human intelligence and machine intelligence, some things happen that we cannot understand.
"Let me get philosophical for a minute. In a human world, life is made interesting by serendipity," Yellin told me. "The more complexity you add to a machine world, you're adding serendipity that you couldn't imagine. Perry Mason is going to happen. These ghosts in the machine are always going to be a by-product of the complexity. And sometimes we call it a bug and sometimes we call it a feature."
Actually, Alexis, I am baffled by your conclusion that the Perry Mason Mystery is a "ghost in the machine".Thinking more about my comment and what's been revealed about Netflix's methodology, I don't think The Perry Mason Mystery is necessarily because the core altgenre or ecological niche is wildly popular. The phenomenon occurs because *no-one else is in it*: there are a large number of categories related to Understated and Cerebral Dramas, and no other actors are getting their altgenre numbers boosted by them.
To me it seems obvious: there is a subgenre, "Understated Cerebral Mysteries with Ironclad Plots, Good Dialogue, Not Much Action or Romance, and on the Side of the Defense", that is popular with viewers yet *drastically* underpopulated. It's so drastically underpopulated that the show that's a best-fit for the category is *enormously* popular, much more popular than anyone realized.
Far from being a "bug", this is programming *platinum* for Netflix. If they're as smart as I think they are, this is the subgenre where they should be looking to make a TV series. The biggest problem will be finding a showrunner and scriptwriters who are able to go against so many of Hollywood's cliches and assumptions. They need to make something where what is visually interesting, striking, or exciting is unimportant, but where there are no holes in the plots. Very high degree of difficulty, and only profitable to Netflix, which makes money from its shows, not from the advertising.
I believe that the dearth of movies/TV in this niche isn't just because it's difficult to write really good plots -- I think scriptwriters could learn to do it, if they had the incentive. I think there's also the fact that it's a poor mix with advertising.
"Understated, Cerebral" is the *opposite* of what advertisers want in an audience. Remember, in conventional TV the audience is not the customer, the audience is the product. The emotional ambience of a Perry Mason Altgenre is cool and thoughtful, and will only appeal to advertisers who think their products will appeal to those qualities. What *most* advertisers want is to forge an emotional connection and an impulse, so they want an excited, emotionally labile audience.
The other way the Perry Mason Altgenre audience fails is that it is too old -- while most advertisers compulsively target 18-34 year-olds, preferably males. In fact, when I saw Madrigal's list I laughed and said, "it's because of my mom!" My mother is currently 88, but she was a Netflix early adopter, way back in the early 2000s. In my parents' case, the genre that brought them into Netflix was "European movies that never had a wide US release" -- and there are a *lot* of them if you don't mind subtitles. They had a great time even before Netflix offered streaming, going through award-winning movies by country and by decade, at last getting a chance to see much more than even the college film club had provided.
Now, My mother was also a big Perry Mason fan back when it was new, I grew up watching episodes (and re-runs) -- and I know that my parents keep looking for its kind of tight, logic- and not action-based mysteries in modern TV, and mostly failing to find them. If (when) Netflix puts together a Perry Mason Altgenre original series, my parents will be *so* there.
This is why I think Netflix is The Future of TV: because in their business model the audience is the customer. Only Netflix could dare make Orange Is the New Black, and possibly only on Netflix would it be an outstanding success -- because to Netflix, all subscribers (and their money) are equal. Whereas over in conventional-TV-land, NBC cancelled Harry's Law while it was one of their most-watched shows -- because the viewers were too old (and, I suspect, too female).
So, what do you think? Is the Perry Mason Altgenre a fluke of some sort? An emergent property of the system? Or is it due to some kind of subliminal influence from my mom? -- and maybe millions of other people like her who like TV that *thinks* and doesn't explode.