BEVERLY HILLS — Is there a Netflix show you really love?
Do you want to see more of it?
Better get streaming.
Even to people who watch and write about television for a living, the ways of Netflix can seem as impenetrable as Star Trek's Borg. But on Sunday, during the Television Critics Association's summer meetings, the head of original programming for Netflix attempted to explain a little about how the increasingly prolific streaming service decides what to make — and what to make more of.
Math is involved, as it nearly always is in television, but it's not Nielsen estimates of, say, how many 18- to 49-year-olds, or women, or people in high-earning households are watching that interests Netflix.
"What we found is that demographics are not a good indicator of what people like to watch. Instead, our team of scientists have understood that there are connections among content types and what people like to watch," said Cindy Holland, who oversees global English-language programming for the streaming service, now in 190 countries.
If you're a Netflix customer, you may be a member of one of as many as 2,000 "taste communities" that could include people whose language you don't speak but whose interests you share.
"Take, for instance, someone in Mumbai and someone in Iowa who are both in a taste community that loves a group of titles which includes [comedian] Dave Chappelle, The Ranch, and the film The Theory of Everything," Holland said. "There's a lot of math behind why that might be."
Netflix, she said, "doesn't know the demographics of our viewers, but it does know their tastes," and it uses what it knows to decide what those people might want to see next, and whether there's enough of them to support a particular show.
It also knows how many people binge-watch its shows — and how many cut those binges short.
That, according to Holland, is what happened to Everything Sucks, a satirical look at high school in the 1990s that was canceled in April after one season, to the distress of fans, who took to social media to complain.
"In the case of Everything Sucks, it had a passionate and good audience coming in, but what we were finding is that there were far fewer people than average who were completing the season. And so when we looked at what it would take, how many viewers we would need to be successful with a Season 2, we found that the audience size really just wasn't there," she said.
Because Netflix doesn't follow the broadcast network model, in which shows often find out in May if they'll be back in the fall, or the premium cable model, where renewal announcements may be a form of promotion, sometimes made even before a show's premiered, the wait to see if the series you've just spent a weekend watching will be back can be a long one. (Or relatively short, as it recently was for Lost in Space.) And there won't be any published ratings to guide you.
"There aren't specific timelines. We generally have some number of months after a season launches to start to evaluate the data and figure it out," Holland said.
She wouldn't say whether GLOW, the '80s-set dramedy about women wrestlers that premiered its second season on June 29 to enthusiastic reviews, would be renewed for a third. But on Sunday, Netflix featured both a panel with the cast and producers and an evening event with reporters in support of the show.
Netflix's One Day at a Time, a critical favorite whose renewals after its first and second seasons seemed to some of us to take forever, was picked up in late March for a third season that will premiere next year.
Gloria Calderón Kellett, along with Mike Royce, developed the show, a reimagining of Norman Lear's 1975-84 sitcom that stars Justina Machado and Rita Moreno and features three generations of a Cuban American family.
"Once we launch, until we find out, we are in darkness," Calderón Kellett said. (Netflix doesn't share viewing statistics.)
"That darkness is itchy. It's like, 'I gotta do something.' So I said [on social media], 'Please watch four or five episodes.' Also, selfishly, because I thought, if people watch four or five, it's either [not] for them, or [they'll] love it."
A lot of people say, "'Oh, we like to take our time, watching it, but for you guys, OK, we'll watch it straight through,'" she said. "Because we just want to make more."
For Royce, whose credits include Everybody Loves Raymond and Men of a Certain Age, the Netflix model is "just a different kind of anxiety," he said.
"I really, really, don't miss the horrible, waking up the next morning, checking the ratings to see if you're going to be canceled or not. … Maybe it's good news, maybe it's bad news, but it's just a roller-coaster of emotions every week," he said.
"I prefer the ritual of slow-moving anxiety, I don't know anything, we're getting a lot of good press, is it making a difference, what are the numbers?" Royce said. "I prefer being a little ignorant."
Another bright spot: "Social media can actually make a direct difference. You tell people, 'Go watch the show,' and they will go watch the show, and it counts. … In the old days, if you tried to do that, it doesn't matter [unless] they're a Nielsen family," Royce said.