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Netflix’s decision to renew Hemlock Grove shows its algorithms are working

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Netflix (s NFLX) announced this week that it is renewing its original horror series Hemlock Grove for a second season, with 10 new episodes set to premiere in 2014. The news may come as a surprise to some: Netflix has spent a lot of effort promoting Arrested Development and House of Cards, but hasn’t made a big fuss about Hemlock. Critics who watched the show hated it, calling it a dud, a flop and “the company’s first truly bad series.

And if you’re anything like me, then you have never seen Hemlock Grove pop up in your Netflix recommendations. Heck, chances are, you may have never heard about Hemlock before reading this article. But that’s OK; Netflix didn’t make the show for us. It’s aimed at an audience of teenage horror fans. And Netflix had the numbers to know that this audience was engaged enough on the streaming service to make a title like Hemlock Grove succeed.

Netflix has long puzzled the traditional TV industry by refusing to give out ratings for its original shows, despite the fact that House of Cards, in particular, seemed to have turned into a hit, both loved by critics and audiences alike. But the company has been dismissive of this kind of feedback, with Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos telling me earlier this year that the absolute number of people who tune into a single episode doesn’t matter all that much. “When you say 10 million people watch a show, that really doesn’t tell you anything,” he said when I met him at an industry conference in February.

Instead, Netflix is looking to cultivate dedicated niche audiences, and is paying very close attention to the ways its subscribers are interacting with each piece of content. If they watch en episode of a show, are they opting to watch the second one as well? If they go from watching a movie to a TV show episode, does it fit into a pattern that lets you predict about what they’re going to watch next?

Sarandos told me that Netflix is using a mix of data and intuition when it makes decisions on original content. I’d bet that with renewals, data wins over gut feelings. And the fact that Netflix decided to renew Hemlock Grove doesn’t make the show good television — but it shows that the company’s algorithms are working.

172 Responses to “Netflix’s decision to renew Hemlock Grove shows its algorithms are working”

  1. Jay Fisher

    This review was horrible. I thought the first season was amazing and weird. Very strange indeed but the fans love it. My wife and I love it. Can’t wait for the next season! Way 2 go Eli Roth!

  2. Hannah

    I really liked the show. It really made you think about things. It’s nice to have a show that makes you think and where everything isn’t spelled out.

  3. marcyrw

    Netflix is the future of TV. So many great shows have been cancelled over the years b/c they didn’t reach the stratospheric numbers required by the majors, only to be replaced by ridiculous “faux reality” shows. Well, not sorry to see their short-sighted business models go the way of the horse and buggy. And… I loved Hemlock Grove. Campy, fun, mysterious/atmospheric, peppered with a few truly original characters, and unexpected twists and turns. And, trust me, I’m nowhere near the demographic you cite here. I’ll be watching next season.

  4. I’m watching it now and I’m 37. It’s a strange show but a welcome relief with all the boring reality show out there. I’m pleased that there will be a second season. Cheers to more creative programming :)

  5. Won over

    ” Netflix is looking to cultivate dedicated niche audiences”. This kind of forward, insightful thinking is what gave Apple the mp3 download market (as well as a few others), hands down. It’s refreshing to see a company in the visual media industry breaking out of the tired conventions. Niche markets are as staunchly loyal to their icons as minority groups are to a cause, especially when given a high caliber product. Perhaps critics who panned this excellent show are habituated into expecting fast paced, formulaic productions that can deliver x or y by the time 60 minutes are up. Initially I found it a little slow, but the pace allowed for unraveling of complex, multifaceted personalities and mysteries that kept me captivated and wanting more. As a 40 year old woman I probably appreciate the deeper psychology of a character more-so than the average teen, but there is certainly a sub-set of today’s youth who are seekers interested in more than just the latest hype. I’m glad Netflix recognize this and I’m excited that we will be given more of this intriguing tale in a second season. 00

  6. I am in my late twenties and I love the show so does my mom! So it is not just for teens. It is just as good as American Horror Story and any horror fan can love it. Glad it is coming back.

  7. I can understand why the critics hate it occasionally poor acting and schizo plot, and I can understand why teens would love it. Sex, Violence, Smoking, Sex, Alcohol, Violence, Occult, Sex, Drugs, Violence, and….oh yeah more sex and gore.

    I think I’ll pass on the second season.

  8. digitalmediaview

    NFLX decision to renew HG “shows that the company’s algorithms are working.” Huh? It shows they are managing the narrative around their “original programming infalibility” as it relates to their stock price very carefully. If they announced they were not renewing the show–that their magic algoritm failed–would have tanked their stock. Google Trends analysis clearly shows interest in the program fell 90% within a few weeks of is debut, and peak interest was well below other NFLX originals to begin with.

  9. Loose seal

    Not sure just how big of a sucsess the show was for Netflix, as they waited until the deadline for actors renewal-clauses before they gave the second season the go-ahead. This was not a very good show, but Lilyhammer, House of Cards and AD are, so money would be better spent elsewhere.

  10. The commissioning or acquisition of content for niche audiences is one of the great successes of the digital revolution. It brings to mind a paper written by Jeanette Steemers back in 1997, who then argued that multichannel TV would contribute to content plurality and diversity. Slightly ironic, given that these values are the foundation of our public broadcasters. Netflix is of course a subscription service, but then again viewers pay a stealth tax on supposedly ‘free’ VoD services in the form of advertising. You can decide which the lesser evil is; free market economics or blunt commercialisation. Sarandos is correct in stating audience volume alone is no measure of success. Furthermore this suggests Netflix is finding ways to make the personalisation of content profitable. This is also great news for its customers, whose unique cultural tastes can be catered for in a way often over looked by mainstream broadcasters who prioritise ratings and audience shares. As an antithesis to the algorithm argument, here’s a link to Eli Pariser’s fantastic TED lecture.

  11. jessica

    I Love the show.(not a teenager, bt the way) It is very Different. Glad to see it come back for second season. I don’t always agree with the critics.

  12. As someone who works and lives in the horror industry, I know only one person who watched this show – and they only made it three episodes. I’d love to see the statistics on who watched it

    • I doubt that Netflix will release that information. However, you reference one person you know of who watched the show, and obviously hated it. Well, I will tell you of another person who watched it, and loved it.

      That would be myself, a 62 year old, straight, married male. I then got my 20 year old daughter hooked on it. And miracle of miracles, my 56 year old wife, who generally avoids shows that are “tense” and “gory,” preferring instead to watch cozy Brit-style bloodless mysteries. We all found the interaction among the characters, and the ongoing mystery, quite compelling. Plot holes? CERTAINLY. So what?

      Was it Mark Twain who once remarked, attributing to Disraeli, ” “Lies – damn lies – and statistics?”

  13. I liked the show. It was interesting. I am looking forward to the second installment. Matter of fact, Netflix, where is the second installment of House of Cards? Now that show got me hooked!! You know, it’s not nice to leave people hanging! I say that with love. Hee Hee!

  14. Earl Gentry Jr.

    Netflix and Youtube should employ the technology offered by Raystream Inc. this software can reduce the amount of bandwidth used, it would stop the buffering, show clearer pictures even on HD, people with only a 3G connection would be able to watch the movies without buffering.

  15. I agree with what some of the negative reviews say about this series, but I love it nonetheless. It is so lush, slow, and weird, and the sometimes awkward acting works with the atmosphere of the show. I just loved it.
    Regarding advertising, the show kept popping in my netflix home page, so either netflix advertised it in some way, or they have identified my with a vampire loving teen; I should probably worry about that actually!

  16. Shogun

    Not everybody wants to see stupid stuff like Honey BooBoo, reality shows and stuff like Desperate Housewifes… duh! Hemlock Grove was interesting and very different from your every day werewolf movies…. I thoroughly enjoyed it and want more!

    • D.m. Miller

      Agreed, it’s good to see something out of the ordinary. Given the whole vampire/werewolf thing has been done a lot lately but they made a nice twist to it and it kept my interest. I don’t know why there’s so many people saying how horrible it is.

      • Thoroughbred Cowgirl

        I agree also, and am looking forward to more episodes!
        I have found that whatever the critics say is bad – is usually REAL good, and what they do like and promote is a pile of refuse. IMO
        But then again I despise reality shows and drama queens.

  17. Netflix makes some interesting moves in light of content programing. A lot of shows that died on Network TV might find life at Netflix for cult-like followers of shows. CHUCK for example, supposedly a smaller audience, but extremely committed and loyal followers.

  18. My husband and I, (NOT teenagers, by the way) just recently found this show and we really like it a lot. It isn’t the greatest show I have ever seen, but it is interesting and entertaining. Just proves to me that what we always discuss is true: if critics hate it, we are probably going to like it. LOL

  19. I thought the series was good, it had a good mystery within it. I also think that they should take a page from wigs on youtube by releasing so many episodes on a certain day.