Netflix Says Its Algorithm Is Helping to Kill 'Genre Bias'


Superheroes, science fiction, and horror have long suffered from “genre bias,” but Netflix thinks its algorithm can turn skeptics into, in the words of Stan Lee, true believers. “Genres are just wrappers,” the company declared Tuesday.

Netflix tracks dozens and dozens of micro-genres that inform its algorithmic recommendation engine, enabling the streaming service to suggest to its 104 million viewers new programming they will probably enjoy based on their viewing history but didn’t know about.

The company used the recent debut of Marvel’s Defenders — the ensemble series that includes the stars of their own eponymously named shows Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Daredevil, and Iron Fist — to break down just how fans of the genre “strong females” will be recommended Jessica Jones and how people who frequently watch “edgy coming-of-age tales” will be nudged to give Iron Fist a chance.

“The launch of The Defenders provided a good moment to showcase to viewers that there are multiple pathways to discover the Marvel Universe and a superhero binge,” a Netflix spokesman tells Inverse. “There are thousands of pathways to find new content, and with 80 percent of viewers choosing shows/films based on the Netflix algorithm, we wanted to show that shows with preconceived barriers (i.e. comic book shows) truly appeal to loads of members for different reasons.”

Netflix touts itself as the gateway to so-called “comic book-based content,” noting that one in eight viewers of its Marvel Comics superhero shows were new to the macro-genre when they started watching. And more than 80 percent of viewers who watched those comic book shows selected them after the algorithm suggested it.

Netflix is a company that sees a great deal of its decision-making power come from its data. Some shows are efficiently renewed for a second season mere weeks after the first season debut because time spent watching hits a certain threshold. Other shows are quickly canceled. It seems that only a total solar eclipse can put a dent in streaming rates:

“Hey, just wondering why 10% of you chose to watch a giant rock cover a giant ball of gas when I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN THERE FOR YOU,” Netflix’s Twitter account posted on Monday, “but really, there was a 10% drop in plays during the eclipse today. Well played, Moon.”

In a press release, Netflix indirectly admits that comic book-based shows can be a hard sell to people who aren’t interested in the genre or don’t think of themselves as a comic book person. But a comic book genre is just a wrapper, not an identity or tribe — although it can be those things — to Netflix’s agnostic algorithm.

“At Netflix we know genres are just wrappers, which is why we work hard to create algorithms that help members break these pre-conceived notions and make it easier for them to find stories they’ll love, even in seemingly unlikely places,” said Todd Yellin, vice president of product innovation.

This graphic released by Netflix on Tuesday shows how the company is trying to break down barriers for genre-based programming.


Netflix calls it “genre bias,” and while it doesn’t share data on how those biases manifest themselves, it does offer a few anecdotal examples of how other stigmatized genres — horror and science fiction — convert former skeptics.

“One in five Stranger Things fans were new to horror before entering the Upside Down,” the company reveals. “Similarly, one in seven Black Mirror watchers were new to science fiction before exploring the dark side of technology,” the company revealed.

Here’s the breakdown that Netflix shared on Tuesday:

Anti-heroes and moral ambiguity lead viewers to Marvel’s Daredevil.
Stories that dabble in life’s grey area heighten viewers’ senses for Daredevil, like the political turmoil of House of Cards and the thin lines of family loyalty in Bloodline. As do characters who blur the lines between vigilante and villain, like Walter White’s entrepreneurial antics in Breaking Bad and Dexter Morgan’s homicidal heroics in Dexter.
Sharp humor, strong females and dark crime draw watchers to Marvel’s Jessica Jones.
It’s Jessica Jones’ sharp wit that makes her bingeworthy. Series with smart humor, like Master of None, Friends and John Mulaney: The Comeback Kid, draw viewers to Jones as do stories with strong female leads, like Orange is the New Black. A nod to her detective roots, series immersed in dark criminal worlds also do the trick, like the psychological thrill of Making A Murderer.
Dangerous worlds and complex consequences direct viewers to Marvel’s Luke Cage.
Shows that expose the dark side of society draw viewers to Luke Cage, like the question of guilt in Amanda Knox and the examination of technology in Black Mirror. Similarly, series immersed in dangerous realms, like a cartel-ridden Medellin in Narcos and a zombie-filled Atlanta in The Walking Dead, lead watchers to Cage’s world.
Edgy coming-of-age tales steer watchers to Marvel’s Iron Fist.
Grit isn’t the only path to a comic binge. Edgy coming-of-age series, like Love, Shameless and 13 Reasons Why, bring viewers to Danny Rand and his transitional tale from orphan to crime fighter. The passage from warrior to winner also struck a chord with viewers courtesy of Ultimate Beastmaster.

Netflix also released this graphic that ties its other programming back to the Defenders. If you like Master of None and Friends, you’re more likely to enjoy Jessica Jones. And Black Mirror and Walking Dead watchers are into Luke Cage.

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