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Why did you watch Tiger King on Netflix?

On this episode of Land of the Giants: How does Netflix’s famous algorithm work? And how does Netflix use it?

A man with a flashy blue sequined shirt crouches low, embracing a tiger and looking at the camera.
The Tiger King.
Netflix

Did you watch Tiger King during the quarantine?

A lot of us did. Netflix’s true-crime documentary about tiger breeders battling it out with animal rights activists was released in late March. Within a month, some 64 million people had watched at least some of the series.

This was during the same time that millions of people were stuck at home for lockdown and decided to subscribe to Netflix.

But did all of those Netflix users watch Tiger King because they wanted to or because their friends told them to? Or was it because Netflix told them to via its vaunted recommendation algorithm?

That’s the question we explore on the latest episode of Land of the Giants: The Netflix Effect.

And more broadly, we wanted to get a better understanding of how Netflix uses the vast trove of data it collects about its viewers’ habits.

At this point, most of us know that big tech companies often surveil their users and then use the information they gather to decide what their users are likely to see or engage with. The downside of that can be obvious: Just ask Facebook’s and Google’s many critics.

The stakes seem lower for Netflix. For instance, to date, no one has accused the company of subverting democracy in the US. And Netflix says it doesn’t hoover up nearly as much of your data as other big tech companies because it’s not in the ad business and doesn’t need that level of information.

But Netflix does take very detailed notes about the way its 200 million users behave when they watch Netflix.

It says it uses that data to help figure out what you might want to watch — and to figure out the best way to present that choice to you. Even if Netflix thinks you and your friend both want to watch, say, Floor Is Lava, it may show each of you different images or clips from the show based on what it knows about your viewing habits.

But our big question is whether Netflix has a bias about who owns the stuff it shows you.

It’s an increasingly relevant question as media companies that used to license their stuff to Netflix claw that content back so they can power their own competing streaming services. Which is why Friends has left Netflix for HBO Max, and The Office is going to Comcast’s Peacock, and why most of Disney’s TV shows and movies have moved to Disney+.

So it would seem obvious that Netflix would want to promote shows it makes and owns, like Tiger King and Floor Is Lava, because it can keep those shows, as opposed to ones that will eventually leave for another streamer.

Which is why we asked Netflix executives and people outside of the company if that’s actually happening. You can hear their answers on the player below, or on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you like to listen to podcasts.