What happens at Netflix when House of Cards goes live

Netflix staff watch as House of Cards Season 2 goes live.

Netflix monitors House of Cards mentions on social media.

Netflix knows who's watching the show and in what quantities.

A scene from the Netflix War Room.

The new world of Internet TV is really geeky.

I spent some time in the Netflix War Room last night, as the company debuted the new season of its smash hit TV series, House of Cards. The war room is a conference room with big table in the middle. And as we approached midnight, a bunch of engineers were couched over their laptops.

Jeremy Edberg, Netflix’s Reliability Architect, was one of them.

"So when the clock hits 12, the first thing I’m going to be doing is looking at our dashboards to see if anybody is playing the show," Edberg said.

If nobody is playing House of Cards, that means there’s a problem. Unlike traditional TV, we use hundreds of different devices to go online. And last night, the engineers were there to make sure that House of Cards would play on every one of them.

"We’ve probably got sitting around the room an X-Box, a Play Station, Nintendo, Apple devices, Android devices and a couple of different TVs from our partner manufacturers," Edberg said.

The engineers can tell, in real time, how many people are streaming the show on these devices, where they are, and who’s binging. Edberg said the last time House of Cards launched, the engineers figured out that the entire season was about 13 hours.

"And we looked to [see]  if anybody was finishing in that amount of time," Edberg said. "And there was one person who finished with just three minutes longer than there is content. So basically, three total minutes of break in roughly 13 hours."

That’s right, of its 40 million subscribers around the world, Netflix was able the find the one super binger. Netflix spokesman Joris Evers said Netflix knows everything about your viewing habits.

"We monitor what you watch, how often you watch things," Evers said. "Does a movie have a happy ending, what’s the level of romance, what's the level of violence, is it a cerebral kind of movie or is it light and funny?"

Evers said Netflix uses this data when it decides on which original program to buy.

"House of Cards was obviously a big bet for Netflix," Joris said. "But it was a calculated bet because we knew Netflix members like political dramas, that they like serialized dramas. That they are fans of Kevin Spacey, that they like David Fincher."

Netflix’s move into original programming is all about taking viewers from other media companies, especially HBO, said Brad Adgate, an analyst at Horizon Media.

He says Netflix has more subscribers than HBO, but when it comes to making money, Netflix is David to HBO’s Goliath. But Adgate says, Netflix does have its slingshot.

"I think right now Netflix does have a competitive advantage over HBO because of the analytics," Adgate said.

Networks like HBO still rely, on large part, on Nielsen data. But the information Netflix gets is much more textured, granular... and valuable.

"And I think that’s where television and streaming video is headed - but I think right now streaming video is in the lead," Adgate said. That said, he added, it’s just a matter of time before HBO and other premium channels catch up.

About the author

Queena Kim covers technology for Marketplace. She lives in the Bay Area.

Netflix monitors House of Cards mentions on social media.

Netflix knows who's watching the show and in what quantities.

A scene from the Netflix War Room.

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