Why Netflix loves suspenseful mad scientists


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    Netflix's Max has a distinct, fun-loving yet snarky personality.

    - Chau Tu / Marketplace

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    Todd Yellin, Netflix's V.P. of Product Innovation, demonstrates Max.

    - Chau Tu / Marketplace

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    Max is aimed at recommending films and TV shows for Netflix users based on what they'd previously watched.

    - Chau Tu / Marketplace

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    Max as he readies his selection.

    - Chau Tu / Marketplace

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    After he makes a selection, Max will offer a 30-second pitch of the film or TV show, or you can choose a different suggestion.

    - Chau Tu / Marketplace

The streaming video service Netflix has a lot going for it: Popular exclusive programming like Kevin Spacey's "House of Cards" or the return of "Arrested Development," a growing subscriber base and big, new deals with movie giants like Disney.

But the company is still struggling to define itself. In fact, the company's chief content officer told the magazine GQ in an interview published earlier this year that “the goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.” 

One thing the company continues to progress at is refining the selection mechanism for what movies and programs it recommends to subscribers.

Today, Netflix announces the latest feature for its online subscribers, a "witty, gameshow-like experience," according to the company, that is available on the PlayStation 3. Netflix has named the feature "Max," and it's basically a virtual assistant aimed at helping Netflix subscribers choose which movie or TV show to stream next.

It's all based on Netflix's famous profiling algorithm, which follows the viewing habits of its users to guess at what else they'd like to consume.

"We thought Netflix should be brain-dead easy; we're doing all the hard work underneath, and you should be shocked to find out that there are 800 engineers and designers working in Silicon Valley to make the Netflix experience better," says Todd Yellin, vice president of product innovation at Netflix. Max is "basically using those sophisticated algorithms under the hood to bubble up a great suggestion."


While an algorithm that can hone in on specific tastes of subscribers is probably a good thing for both Netflix and indecisive movie-watching subscribers, it also presents some pretty distinct ways of categorizing movies. This includes those hyper-specific, over-intellectualized themed groupings you can sometimes see in your account. You know, like...

"Gritty 20th century period dramas based on real life"

"Emotional independent suburban-dysfunction movies"

"Suspenseful mad scientist sci-fi and fantasy"

"Visually striking imaginative action & adventure"

But are these really getting at what you want to watch?

What would be your dream Netflix category? Tweet us @MarketplaceAPM using the hashtag #perfectnetflix.

(And if you've seen any other funny/ridiculous categories in your Netflix account, snap a photo and send those our way too.)

About the author

Chau Tu is the former assistant web producer for Marketplace.

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