As with all things Netflix, it all comes back to the notorious algorithm. Every action you take is tracked, and changes how the interface tailors its content to suck you in. Finding a specific genre is a side-benefit – the goal is to feed information to fuel the recommendations bar.
Wired explains how the content viewers consume labels them into different taste groups. This data is then combined with other factors, such as how long something was binged, whether the viewer stopped watching something halfway through, and even whether their behaviour has changed over time.
Then, this algorithm dictates “what recommendations pop up to the top of your onscreen interface, which genre rows are displayed, and how each row is ordered for each individual viewer.” Every choice you make on Netflix feeds back into the content machine, and tags/categories play a massive role in this intricate system.
In fact, Netflix has a whole host of ‘secret’ categories that can be found by typing in a specific code at end of a URL. Whilst many encompass some of the most popular genres like thriller, drama and comedy, some are incredibly specific. For example, typing in the code 1477204 will bring up ‘Christmas, Children & Family Films, Ages 8 to 10’ - see the full list here.
There’s also categories that fuse actors and genres, such as ‘Comedies starring Robert Downey Jr. (3356)’. These tags are used to influence future projects. For example, The Things discusses how the casting of Will Arnett and Aaron Paul in BoJack Horseman was critical in getting the show green lit, with both being leads in two of the most popular shows on Netflix – Arrested Development and Breaking Bad.
The Netflix Tech Blog breaks down this data even further, explaining how new projects are developed with a Netflix specific elevator pitch in mind, such as if a teen film has the “wholesome, romantic vibe of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before”. It’s not just analysing films that are popular in Hollywood, it’s specifically what works for Netflix audiences.
The tags that Netflix use are emotive words designed appeal to certain moods - but they aren't always reflective of the content. For example, under 'Quirky' you'll find shows such as Friends, New Girl, and The Big Bang Theory - three of the most mainstream sitcoms in decades. It's most likely Netflix has researched their audience and knows that this word resonates with them, thereby generating more clicks.
Some streaming platforms lend themselves to more niche genres. According to a survey by Global Web Index, a quarter of Hulu’s audience base has a hunger for reality TV, and around 15% use the platform for foreign language films and shows (or plan to in the future).
Disney Plus meanwhile has two very similarly titled categories in its library, ‘Throwbacks’ and ‘Nostalgic Movies’. Both have a mix of different eras and genres in there, so how are they different? Well, they aren’t.
As I pointed out last week when pitting binge culture against weekly releases, Disney has nowhere the same amount of content that Netflix does. Therefore, it is using categories to help pad out the homepage, and perhaps to see what terms users interact with more.
Sky-owned streaming service, Now, boasts a time-responsive catalogue of content. There are sections for TV BAFTA-nominated shows in response to the nominee announcements a few weeks ago, along with a whole carousel dedicated to the ‘Iron Anniversary’, celebrating 10 years since Game of Thrones first debuted, with a series of behind-the-scenes features for users to reminiscence on.
You see the same thing happen with genres that go through trends. For example, when Tiger King went viral, there was an uptick in viewers watching true crime documentaries. This can be useful for chasing bursts in popularity amongst genres and drawing in audiences whilst curiosity is at its peak.
Amazon Prime Video’s listings make it painfully obvious that this platform is using this page to drive revenue first and foremost, rather than catering to new interests for viewers. It puts Prime exclusives and originals at the top, and then deals on films available to rent or buy underneath.
And so, we circle back round to the real question: what purpose do these niche categories and genres serve? Whilst discoverability for new shows and movies may be what the businesses want you to think they’re after, it’s really a much more valuable thing: data from your own viewing habits.
Finding new shows and movies through categories and guides isn’t even the top way of discovering new shows and movies. A study from TiVo shows that around 50% find new shows from commercials and recommendations from friends – much higher than the 16% that discover them through guides and menus.
Netflix is one of the oldest players in the game and knows how to tailor its service to individuals. Whilst ‘Swoonworthy’ may seem like a bizarre term, it’s a way of labelling shows that span across multiple conventional genres, and can help Netflix not just license similar titles, but commission new projects to keep viewers subscribed.
Not all streaming services have the same goals. Disney Plus uses categories mainly to create a more interactive homepage, whilst Amazon uses it as a vehicle for direct revenue. However, the more specific the category, the more likely it is to be a data miner – and Netflix is the worst offender.
What I’m watching this week
You may know Simu Liu for his upcoming role in the Marvel film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. However, before that he had a regular role on the sitcom Kim's Convenience, a show about a Korean-Canadian family who run a convenience store in downtown Toronto.
Kim's Convenience deals with the family’s run-ins with bizarre customers and co-workers, and tackles issues within the home. It’s both hilarious and heart-warming – a perfect show to have on when you don’t want to think too hard. And sorry Simu, but Paul Sun-Hyung Lee as Mr. Sang-il Kim is the real standout.