Did Netflix's Algorithm Just Replace Oscar Judges?

Netflix is mixing with the cinema box office when it comes to which films we watch -- both in terms of viewing, and crucially, recommendations. That would appear to be the takeaway from the latest research from GlobalWebIndex ahead of this weekend's Oscars ceremony.

There are a whole bunch of figures in there, but two observations sum up the power of Netflix right now, to me at least.

The first is that only 39% of the more than 2,000 Brits surveyed think awards like the Oscars or Golden Globes are useful for guiding them to which movies they should be watching. If judges aren't important, guess who is? That's right, a piece of Netflix or Sky code that nearly always seems to get it right when recommending what to watch next.

The second takeaway is the proportion of people who have seen the nominated films -- including Netflix's black-and-white arty, subtitled movie, "Roma."

We all know that Netflix plays a little fast and loose with the awards rules. It puts a film out in a few cinemas to ensure it can say the movie has been theatrically released and the entry criteria has been just about been reached.

However, what's really interesting is that 7% of respondents to the latest research say they have seen it.

Sounds pretty low but, funnily enough, "The Favourite" -- which everyone is talking about as, pardon the pun, a favourite tip for a bunch of awards -- was only seen by 8% of the population. Another nominee, "Vice," was similarly only seen by 7% of respondents, and "Green Book" by 6%.

No guesses for pointing out that around one in three had seen "Bohemian Rhapsody" and 39% had seen "Black Panther." The big cinematic hits of the past year are way out ahead for audience, and as a potential spoiler, the survey has the Queen and Freddie Mercury biopic way out ahead as the fans' favourite to win the top prize for best movie.

It has to be pointed out that both have been available on Sky and so this audience could well have been built in the living room as well as the cinema.

Nevertheless, the research shows that Netflix can get an audience the same size as an Oscar-nominated film, or three. But that's only half the story.

As mentioned, the same research shows that only 39% of Brits think the Oscar nominations, and those for the Golden Globes, are of any use in pointing them toward a movie they may enjoy. That means nearly two in three are, arguably, relying on recommendations from Netflix and possibly Sky. 

A nomination for an award used to be a big thing for entertainment producers. It still is. You can see DVD covers and album sleeves covered in stickers of what a release has won or been shortlisted for. The new reality, though, is we're now relying on data from people like us to tell us what to watch next.

The recommendations Netflix offers are eerily good at pointing my household to the next binge-watch marathon. It's not the only influence. If a huge movie becomes available on Sky, then it's likely we'll watch it, but I would agree with the research: the majority of the time we're relying on an algorithm to steer us, not what a bunch of judges have said is worthy of note.

It's interesting because this is one of those time a smart piece of machine learning -- a smart algorithm -- has in part replaced or at least complemented an everyday question such as "what do you fancy watching tonight?"

There is still word of mouth and there is still the word of mouth from the experts, but two in three Brits are eschewing the latter and presumably, listening to digital's new equivalent word of mouth, the algorithm that knows what people like you usually enjoy watching next. 

Machine learning or AI can make huge inroads without us really thinking about it until one day research confirms that we listen far more to an algorithm's suggestion than a critic's review or a judge shortlisting a title for an award.

Just count the times you rely on a recommendation for a show or movie that isn't being talked about in the mainstream media and you will start to realise what a huge influence algorithms are having as they start to replace the opinion of an Oscars judge for the next movie people like ourselves should watch.

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