While you watch Netflix, Netflix watches you

BY Zachary Treu  February 18, 2014 at 4:44 PM EDT
Photo by Jin Lee/Bloomberg

Netflix keeps track of your viewing preferences – and the preferences of everyone else who watches. Photo by Jin Lee/Bloomberg

As the clock crawled towards midnight Thursday on the West Coast, Netflix’s engineers sat around a conference table in the company’s War Room and waited for the moment that season two of the company’s original series “House of Cards” would debut across the world.

And as many of Netflix’s 40 million subscribers tuned in to the exploits of power-hungry Vice President Frank Underwood, the engineers kept track of each and every one of them, reported Queena Kim of Marketplace.

“We monitor what you watch, how often you watch things,” said spokesman Joris Evers. Keeping track of viewing habits creates valuable analytic data for Netflix, allowing them to better understand what sort of television their customers crave. And, as the company develops more and more original content, that information will help them decide what to finance.

“‘House of Cards’ was obviously a big bet for Netflix,” Evers 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.”

And that bet paid off. According to Forbes, 16 percent of all Netflix members watched at least one episode of “House of Cards” in the 24 hours after season two’s release. And 3.6 percent watched all of the first five episodes.

In fact, as Kim reported for Marketplace, at least one subscriber watched all 13 episodes in only 13 hours – with just three minutes of break time.

The success of Underwood and company bodes well for Netflix’s ultimate objective, which is to usurp HBO as the premier destination for high-quality television programs.

“There’s not a lot of really great, deep, serialized television … and we can see from the data that that’s what people want,” said Netflix CEO Reed Hastings in a profile by GQ last year.

“The goal,” he said, “is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.”

And though recently released data from Time Warner shows that HBO still has the upper hand in terms of profit, Netflix’s willingness to track and respond to its audience’s interests means that the company is fully invested in rising to the top.

Much, in fact, like Frank Underwood.