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Netflix is giving you bad taste Aesthetic value can't be decided by algorithms

Joan Didion: The Centre Will Not Hold (Netflix)

Joan Didion: The Centre Will Not Hold (Netflix)


September 1, 2023   6 mins

The end of holiday season is upon us, and a chance to apply a new perspective to life as it slowly returns to boring normality. For a few short weeks, if you were lucky enough, you were able to immerse yourself in a different culture: eating new food; meeting new people; gazing, fascinated, upon new and startling sights as you encountered your Airbnb landlord’s Netflix algorithms.

In my own case, a week in Scotland led me to a lot of American college football documentaries. I now know how Jonny Manziel wrecked his career and exactly how Manti Te’o got catfished; what a “fake punt” and a “pancake block” is; and how pivotal the spread offence was to Urban Meyer’s tenure at the Florida Gators. Don’t tell me travel doesn’t broaden the mind.

Safely back home in the comforting arms of my own viewing profile, I’ve started to seek out more documentaries about sports I previously knew nothing about. (My god, the cobble stage of the Tour de France is brutal, isn’t it?) The algorithms generating my homepage, normally invisible to me, have gone haywire — a fact prompting me to look into exactly how they were constructed in the first place.

To work out what you might want to watch next, Netflix first classifies its programmes into at least 76,897 “microgenres”. These group each product under one or more relatively detailed headings, so that combinations of features which apparently appeal to a viewer in one instance can be quickly found in other cases, and then recommended to her. These include such categories as: “Goofy Comedies about Royalty”, “Violent Foreign Mother Son Relationship Movies”, “Understated Australian Movies”, and “Award Winning Underdog Movies”. It is unrecorded whether any particular programme counts as all four of these at once.

It’s interesting to consider what microgenres do to genre criticism in the traditional sense. Critics often assess the success or failure of an artwork against intended genre membership — if it’s a western or a romcom, for instance. Is it a good example of the genre or a bad one? Is it intended to subvert the genre in question, even? Such questions assume that the creators know which larger categories they are working within, or against.

Microgenres aren’t like this, though. You can hardly blame a director for not knowing, all along, that she was competing against other Dark Dramas for Hopeless Romantics Based on Books. And I don’t see how you could “subvert” microgenres at this level of specificity — you’d just automatically enter a different one.

In any case: after humans classify all the available products into microgenres, machine learning takes over. It cross-references information about what you already watched, at what time of day, and for exactly how long, with what other people watch. This places you into one of at least 2,000 worldwide “taste communities” or “taste clusters”. Based on your membership of a given community, Netflix can now start recommending to you the films and programmes also watched by what a company vice-president has referred to as your “taste doppelgangers”. Unlikely as it may appear, it seems I’m probably not the only viewer in the world to have simultaneous recommendations for Joan Didion: The Centre Will Not Hold and At Home With The Furys.

Doing my research, I’ve been unable to find out whether micro-generic adjectives like “Goofy”, “Violent” and “Understated” are supposed by the company to refer to some absolute standard, or whether they are better understood as relative to local standards in the product’s country of origin. It seems to me that an Understated Australian Movie is probably quite different from an Understated French One.

But what does seem clear is that — officially according to Netflix, at least — membership of taste communities is not influenced by geographical location. Nor, allegedly, is it influenced by age, nor even sex. “We have seen that where you live, gender, age and other demographics are not significantly indicative of the content you will enjoy,” a company spokesperson has claimed. “Time after time, we see that what members actually watch and do on the service transcends the predictions of stereotypical demographics.”

If this really is true, it goes against traditional thinking about aesthetic response. For centuries, it’s been assumed that your taste is heavily influenced by local context. Take David Hume, for instance, writing in 1757 about books: “We are more pleased, in the course of our reading, with pictures and characters, that resemble objects which are found in our own age or country, than with those which describe a different set of customs”. For this reason, he also claimed that “comedy is not easily transferred from one age or nation to another”. (In his defence, this was years before the international popularity of The Benny Hill Show complicated the picture.)

So, are national or regional sensibilities irrelevant to aesthetic taste after all? Or is the truth more depressing: that, thanks to companies like Netflix, each of us now swims in a pleasingly benign, individually personalised yet globalised televisual soup, so that nothing as discerning as aesthetic judgement can get going in the first place? I fear it’s the latter.  Choosing your next title from a range preselected for you — and especially where you know pretty much nothing about the titles otherwise — is more like randomly selecting a chocolate from the box than an exercise in careful discrimination.

When people tend to fret about algorithms governing streaming, they usually worry about what it does to our morals — potentially distorting our preferences towards the violent and exploitative on the basis of a few random watches — but not what it might do to aesthetic sensibilities. Yet maybe they should. It’s not just that failure to achieve instant popularity with your assigned taste community means a show can drop out of visibility on your homepage even just one day after launch, meaning that slow-burning series get no real chance for ignition. It’s also that, in terms of guidance about what to engage with, algorithms are replacing recommendations by humans, but with none of the surrounding benefits.

It’s clear we all need help in selecting items from the tsunami of streaming content available — decision-paralysis is definitely a thing. But algorithms speak straight to your limbic system, as it were, bypassing self-conscious reasons for picking this thing over that thing. They move choice out of what philosophers call “the space of reasons” into the less cerebral space of impulse-driven reaction. Critics and reviewers, in contrast, can tell you not just what you should like, but why you should like it.

Before streaming arrived, the timing of watching was not up to the viewer. It wasn’t like music where you could instantly buy a CD. You had to wait for your opportunity to watch new releases, along with everybody else in the country. Not only did this make possible more of a communal experience, but it also gave the professional critic a power that is now fast disappearing. She could, with some authoritative pull on her readership’s attention, issue them with a bold challenge: watch this programme, and either agree with my verdict about it, or explain to yourself — and to each other — why.

These days though, when a reviewer writes critically about a show on a streaming service, she’s already playing catch up with existing public responses. There is less urgency, and a lot of her authority to command attention has been lost. If she praises something that’s already popular, she sounds obsequious and timid. If she dislikes it, she sounds querulous and out-of-touch. She can still write about terrestrial channels of course; but here, too, there’s no longer a shared, simultaneous experience of the programme to ground public discussion. Everybody is off in private corners of the internet, doing their own thing.

Some may respond that even so, the world is still awash with people writing critically about film and TV. This is true but is scant consolation. With most internet criticism being fired aimlessly into the global void in the vague hope of an audience, there is little sense of a dialogue being initiated, with a defined readership in mind, in order to experience something all together — good, bad or indifferent — then argue about it.

Another problem is that, just as decision-paralysis is generated by the sheer number of programmes out there unless we have help of some kind, the same goes for the huge volume of online reviews too. Interesting voices or views tend to get lost in the crowd. Soon enough, machine algorithms will probably work out what kinds of review an individual might like to read: Withering Scandinavian; Largely Effusive With A Couple of Caveats; Sixties British Sexist; and so on. For all I know, maybe they do already.

To bypass this volume problem, sites such as Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes sample highlights from reviewers and aggregate their ratings for a film or show, effectively treating individual critics as members of large panels whose joint verdict counts more than individual ones. Hume would approve of this. He also thought that joint verdicts of “true judges” were more reliable than ones from single individuals, since they allowed private prejudices, biases and blind spots to more readily cancel each other out.

But I think that, with criticism, we shouldn’t necessarily seek reliability. Choosing what programme to consume for an evening is not like buying a used car or choosing a spouse. The stakes are really not that high. What I want from a critic, rather, is erudition and provocation, the better to form my own judgements and not just blindly follow those of others. No matter how well the algorithms anticipate what I want to watch this evening, they are not going to give me that.


Kathleen Stock is an UnHerd columnist and a co-director of The Lesbian Project.
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Peter Kwasi-Modo
Peter Kwasi-Modo
10 months ago

I am not a Netflix subscriber, but I do listen to the radio when it is my turn to cook. When the BBC plans its content and schedule, it also uses an algorithm. It is based on four heuristics:
[1] Ignore the demographic of the current listeners (largely grumpy old gits, like me),
[2] Pretend that the listeners are in the late-teens-to-mid-twenties demographic,
[3] Assume that the listeners are all proto-luvvies and that, with persistent nudging, they can all be converted to full-blown luvvies and
[4] Take no notice of the fact that Radio 4 has lost over 1 million listeners.

Last edited 10 months ago by Peter Kwasi-Modo
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
10 months ago

Ever tried Radio 3?

Peter Kwasi-Modo
Peter Kwasi-Modo
10 months ago

Yes, but that is step-by-step and not-so-silently going the same way as Radio 4. Radio 3 is incrementally increasing its proportion of “world music”, jazz and light music, mixed turn-about with what is supposed to be its mainstay.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
10 months ago

Quite right, and the presenters mustn’t ever sound like they know what they’re talking about; more young or ethnic sounding and a bit goofy, as if they turned up in the wrong studio by mistake. Mustn’t patronise you know or claim greater knowledge than the listener. God forbid that you presume to inform anybody about anything at all.

John Solomon
John Solomon
10 months ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

I can’t work out what is worse – the presenters who cannot pronounce any foreign name (there is one who keeps pronouncing ‘Gewandhaus’ as ‘Gewondhaus’ (I suppose he thinks it’a a ‘magic ge-wand’) or one female presenter who is so determined to demonstrate how great her french accent is that every time she tries to pronounce an ‘r’ sound she appears to be drowning in phlegm.

Peter Kwasi-Modo
Peter Kwasi-Modo
10 months ago
Reply to  John Solomon

My personal bugbear is a BBC Radio 4 news reader who clearly learnt English as a foreign language in the United States. He says “stoodent”, “Moss-cow”, etc.

Chipoko
Chipoko
10 months ago

I concur! Dreadful.

Valerie Taplin
Valerie Taplin
10 months ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

You’re so right.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
10 months ago

Yes, but it still has life in it yet.
It was also excellent during the Covid Scamdemic, none of the hysteria of the others.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
10 months ago

I used to listen to Radio 3 all the time. Now I only listen to specific works in programmed concerts. The daytime output is steadily going downhill towards “bleeding chunks”.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
10 months ago

Radio 3 is engaged in non-stop shameless promotion of the Chineke Orchestra, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, , Florence Price, Joseph Chevalier de Saint-Georges and the Kanneh-Mason family (for the longest time I thought was Fabulous Kanneh-Mason). What are they thinking?

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
10 months ago

The standard anti-White schidt.

John Solomon
John Solomon
10 months ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

It is, in musical terms, the full Samuel (a pile of Scheidt.)

Valerie Taplin
Valerie Taplin
10 months ago

Don’t forget the communist youth orchestra of Venezuela.

Gerald Gleeson
Gerald Gleeson
10 months ago

ABC Classic in Australia promoting the same artists!

John Solomon
John Solomon
10 months ago
Reply to  Gerald Gleeson

With regard to the Chineke orchestra, I totally fail to understand why we are being asked to approve of, applaud and fund, an organisation which selects its members based (effectively) on the colour of their skin. I find that most offensive!

Andrew D
Andrew D
10 months ago

Not forgetting bloody Hildegard of Bingen. You never hear just ordinary plainsong, but she pops up all the time

Chipoko
Chipoko
10 months ago

I used to listen to BBC Radio 3 to escape from the Woking Class propaganda on BBC Radio 4 an BBC Radio 2. But in recent years I’ve ceased accessing BBC Radio 3 which is as wokewashed as its stablemates.
I am sick of the BBC’s incessant efforts to brainwash its audience via every sort of programme it delivers. It is a rotten, arrogant organisation, largely populated and managed by Oxbridge elites – unaccountable and living off billions of pounds of annual taxation (euphemistically called the ‘licence fee).

Luke Piggott
Luke Piggott
10 months ago

Classic FM is much better

Valerie Taplin
Valerie Taplin
10 months ago

We wish you’d written the article, you’re spot on.

Peter Kwasi-Modo
Peter Kwasi-Modo
10 months ago
Reply to  Valerie Taplin

Kathleen Stock is my favourite Unherd contributor. She could write about anything and make it interesting and stimulating. (But thanks, anyway!)

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
10 months ago

Does anybody listen to radio anymore? I mean, my understanding was that video had killed the radio star.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
10 months ago

Yes, every day.

Peter Kwasi-Modo
Peter Kwasi-Modo
10 months ago

My statisitc of the one million lost listeners for BBC Radio 4 comes from RAJAR. In Q2, 2022, BBC Radio 4 had 10.2 million listeners and in Q2, 2023 it had 8.9 million listeners. So the numbers are falling fast, but there are still quite a few. BTW, a person does not have to listen for very long to be counted as a listener.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
10 months ago

Can they count we who are listening via the ‘net in foreign climes? Actually, I’m listening less and less to the BBC and now skip around stations in various countries … anything to escape wokedom. (The ABC is even worse).

David Murphy
David Murphy
10 months ago

Here in Canada, CBC seems to have followed the same heuristics with the addition of the State (i.e. Trudeau) mandated ‘race’ targetted programming.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
10 months ago

Yank Anglophile, here. An artificial, overly dramatic bore.

Peter Kwasi-Modo
Peter Kwasi-Modo
10 months ago

Allison, you are correct. Originally, I think it referred to the way that some Brit actors talked in public: a pretence of being caring and sharing. On reflection, my use of “luvvy” was not right. I should have said that the BBC programne creators think of their audience as being passively woke. Sorry for causing confusion.

Last edited 10 months ago by Peter Kwasi-Modo
Chipoko
Chipoko
10 months ago

‘Passively woke’! I love that!!

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago

A ‘swish” white male,snobbish, patronizing, posh, eliteist, of dubious sexuality, and for whom everything is precious.

Last edited 10 months ago by Clare Knight
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
10 months ago
Reply to  Clare Knight

Guilty as charged on five counts!
Innocent on two counts.
As for “everything is precious”, for my good self, NOTHING is precious, nor ever will be.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago

Which are the two?

Last edited 10 months ago by Clare Knight
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
10 months ago
Reply to  Clare Knight

One and seven.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago

Oh really! How perfectly British of you.

John Solomon
John Solomon
10 months ago
Reply to  Clare Knight

That’s a bit unfair. The archetypical luvvie is Emma Thompson – not male, not (as far as I know) of dubious sexuality. I grant you the rest (though I am sure not all luvvies are necessarily white).
The other prime luvvie is Stephen Fry, who ticks all your boxes, was once described (rather well) as “a stupid person’s idea of what an intelligent person is like”.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  John Solomon

I concur. Emma really has become insufferable. The movie ‘Good Luck to you, Leo Grande’ was totally cringe worthy. But years ago in ‘Carrington’ she brought me to tears. I don’t know what happened.

John Solomon
John Solomon
10 months ago
Reply to  Clare Knight

The acting profession has many examples of skilled performers who do not seem to be particularly pleasant individuals when not playing a part. To take my particular bugbear, Stephen Fry the actor was brilliant playing Jeeves : it’s when he is playing Stephen Fry the ‘personality’ that I cannot bear him (and I used the word ‘playing’ deliberately in the second instance.)

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
10 months ago
Reply to  John Solomon

Hear, hear, he’s grossly obese BBC ‘luvvie’ toad, who’s vanity far exceeds his intellect.
My own favourite is “battery acid throwing“ Jo Brand, another wretched BBC ‘luvvie’ who should have been dismissed years ago.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  John Solomon

That is, sadly, so true. But it’s only since television shows and interviews that more has been expected of them than to just act.

Chipoko
Chipoko
10 months ago
Reply to  Clare Knight

‘Hypocrite’ is another word that should apply (e.g. Emma Thompson).

John Solomon
John Solomon
10 months ago
Reply to  Chipoko

Not to mention ‘smug’ and ‘pretentious’. I could go on (my wife says I usually do : she has taken changing TV channel whenever Stephen Fry is on, to avoid the full rant)

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  Chipoko

Why is she a hypocrite?

Chipoko
Chipoko
10 months ago
Reply to  Clare Knight

One example: She travels by private jet, yet lambastes the air transport industry for its carbon footprint.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
10 months ago

If you’re familiar with the film Withnail & I, a good example is Uncle Monty.

Ross Jolliffe
Ross Jolliffe
10 months ago

Well, quite. Did you hear the one about BBC comedy?

Douglas Redmayne
Douglas Redmayne
10 months ago

Netflix is deliberately distorting history by placing ethnic minority characters in historic English dramas. This is ideological

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
10 months ago

Did you omit to type your final word ‘nonsense’?

Douglas Redmayne
Douglas Redmayne
10 months ago

I consider it malicious and nonsense does not convey the character of the underlying intent

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
10 months ago

It is malicious, combined with a form of toadying. And it never happens in the reverse (except that if they ever make a biopic about Queen Ranavalona, they’ll claim she was actually white and cast Claire Foy).

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
10 months ago

When they portray the Nazis on film they do not infiltrate any ethnic minority characters.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
10 months ago

Exactly, what about a jet black Adolph for starters?

John Solomon
John Solomon
10 months ago

Would he have a white moustache?

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
10 months ago
Reply to  John Solomon

Grey would be better.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
10 months ago

Fair enough!

Linda Whedbee
Linda Whedbee
10 months ago

Let’s not forget how Netflix also loves to dabble in the remake of perfectly good films—turning them into ideological slop that erases historical differences between the generations.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago

Absolutely!!! That’s my pet peeve. Why oh why. I can longer watch them they’re not authentic. It’s that damn Shondra Rhimes making a fortune out of distorting history.

Last edited 10 months ago by Clare Knight
Apo State
Apo State
10 months ago
Reply to  Clare Knight

The spouse and I *tried* to watch Bridgerton after it came out to (near universal) acclaim.
Not only did we find the casting absurd (and absolutely ideological — talk about “nudging”!), but the writing was So. Horribly. Bad. It was like middle school students trying to be Jane Austin (and failing miserably, as they would).
After about fifteen minutes, we exchanged glances, shook our heads, pressed <exit>, and gave it a “thumbs down”. Farting against thunder; it’s been a massively successful series…god knows “good” and “writing” seldom come together in contemporary entertainment.

Chipoko
Chipoko
10 months ago

Netflix is deliberately distorting history by placing ethnic minority characters in historic English dramas.
The BBC and ITV (including Channel 4) have been doing this for years, though with increasing frequency and enthusiasm in recent post BLM times. Quite apart from the programmes themselves just consider the plethora of multi-ethnic TV advertisements. And docu-dramas are another fertile ground for such egregious misrepresentation (one BBC docu-drama on the Norman Conquest featured black lords on King Harold’s English advisory council pre-1066!). Indeed, every facet of radio and TV programming is now infected with ‘blackwashing’. It is understandable that some (many?) find this process insulting and patronising.
It is easier for them to get away with this pernicious crap on the radio for obvious reasons. But those of us with finely-tune aural facilities are not generally fooled!
It was earlier in 2023 that BBC Radio 4 News reported (somewhat gleefully, it seemed to me) that within 30-50 years, possibly earlier, whites will be a minority of the UK population. Perhaps the BBC et al. are simply doing us a favour by preparing us for the inevitable.

Paul Devlin
Paul Devlin
10 months ago
Reply to  Chipoko

That’s what it’s all about. Preparing us and preventing a backlash

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
10 months ago

“Goofy Comedies about Royalty”, “Violent Foreign Mother Son Relationship Movies”, “Understated Australian Movies”, and “Award Winning Underdog Movies.” It is unrecorded whether any particular programme counts as all four of these at once.
Royal Ruck: The hilarious and heartwarming tale of a young Prince Charles (Harry Styles) who during a trip Down Under discovers an heretofore unknown talent for Australian-rules football and must now balance a double life as both the heir to the British throne and the starting ruckman for scrappy gang of ragtag sports misfits the Borroloola Thunder, keeping it a secret from his outrageously overbearing mother the Queen (Eddie Izzard) while also romancing the initially standoffish club manager (Florence Pugh). You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll believe a Windsor can take a running bounce.

MJ Reid
MJ Reid
10 months ago

There are two great reasons not to watch that film, Harry Styles and Eddie Izzard. Oh, forgot the third, it mentions the Royal Family. Nothing funny there!

Ian McKinney
Ian McKinney
10 months ago

Comment of the year!

Matt M
Matt M
10 months ago

I only need two categories: Woke and Non-Woke. Funnily enough, none of the streamers do this. I substitute it by watching nothing made after the turn of the century.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

Sounds a bit narrow minded.

Chipoko
Chipoko
10 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

While there are some productions of the 2010s and early 2020s that are worth watching, these are rare; very rare. I tend to fall back on material produced before 2010 and from the 20th Century as being more watchable and not wokewashed.

Apo State
Apo State
10 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

Try the film “Living” (2022, d./ Oliver Hermanus. It’s like a throwback to the wonderful 1980s British films.). I can’t believe it made it through the film industry intact.

Matt M
Matt M
10 months ago
Reply to  Apo State

I will try that Apo. Thanks.

Richard M
Richard M
10 months ago

Nicely written, as always, but this article is basically about 2 things which I’m unconvinced are really problems.

First, Netflix and their algorithms.

Obviously recommending programmes you’ll probably like on the basis of what you’ve watched before makes sense from their point of view. But my suspicion is that they’re probably overstating how complicated this needs to be or even is.

I used to work for a software company. One of our products looked for risk of fraud and error in benefit applications. We made a big deal of how finely tuned the algorithm was but what was mainly driving the risk scoring was simply how complicated the claim was. If, for example, you’ve had multiple short periods of employment in the last year, then the chances you’ve made an error somewhere in your claim naturally go up.

My guess is something similar is going on at Netflix. For all the talk of thousands of microgenres, the practical upshot is that if you watch a lot of horror movies, you’re going to see the latest Annabel film in your recommendations. Ultimately its up to you whether you watch them or not.

The second thing is the decline of TV as a shared experience and the role of the critic.

Technology changes our relationship with the world. We lose some things and we gain others. Almost 50 years ago literally half the UK population watched the Morecombe and Wise Christmas Show and, yes, in a way its a shame we’ve lost that communal aspect. At the same time how many of us would ever have even heard of Squid Game without streaming platforms? In the last few decades global communities have grown up around music, sport, film, gaming etc etc, which would be all but impossible without internet-enabled services. So we’ve gained as well.

Of course it’s true to say that this has changed the role of the critic. They’ve been stripped of the authority which comes from privileged access and platforms. Inevitably for the reader its harder to find the good writing among the general swill of social media commentary. Will we ever again see a collected works of TV criticism as brilliant as Clive James produced over a decade at the Guardian? Probably not. But there’s still good writing about TV and film out there.

Isabel Ward
Isabel Ward
10 months ago
Reply to  Richard M

Well I disagree. I think it is a problem. Whilst we certainly have gained as you say unfortunately we have also lost as KS points out. I also think we have lostmore and unnecessarily because this space is dominated by US companies.

Richard M
Richard M
10 months ago
Reply to  Isabel Ward

The space may be dominated by US companies but thanks to streaming, Freeview, YouTube etc the space is exponentially bigger. There’s more British made content available than ever. Certainly more than back in the “Glory Days” of 3/4 channels.

Not only are the main terrestrial channels still putting out original British content, but their subsidiary channels like ITV3/4 or Dave primarily broadcast repeats of British shows and films. And that’s just on basic Freeview, throw in the paid for streaming services like Britbox and you can watch British made content round the clock without ever troubling Netflix or Disney+.

Mary Bruels
Mary Bruels
10 months ago
Reply to  Richard M

Bingo! Thanks to BritBox, Acorn, Freeview and others, I rarely watch anything on Netflix anymore. And nothing on television as American television is truly a vast wasteland.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  Mary Bruels

Except fo CNN.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  Clare Knight

Great for international news and documentaries. Christiane Amanpour is a gem.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
10 months ago
Reply to  Richard M

I’ve still never heard of Squid Game. Happily.

Richard M
Richard M
10 months ago

If you haven’t heard of it how do you know you are happy not to have heard of it?

John Solomon
John Solomon
10 months ago

I think it’s where the phrase ‘a damp squid’ comes from………..

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago

Apparently you have !!

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  Richard M

I miss Siskel and Ehbert. I Hardly ever agreed with them but it was interesting to hear their knowledge of film. I also miss Paule Kaal in The new Yorker. Her reviews were usually better than the movie.

Richard M
Richard M
10 months ago

“My god, the cobble stage of the Tour de France is brutal, isn’t it?”

Not entirely the point of the article, I realise, but do yourself a favour and seek out A Sunday in Hell. It’s a 1976 documentary about Paris-Roubaix, one of the cycling one-day “Monuments” which includes 26 sections of cobbles, some of which are little more than farm tracks unchanged since Napoleon’s day. The title comes from the longstanding nickname of the race as “The Hell of the North”.

Better still, watch the racing itself. I hope you’ll be pleased to know they introduced a womens version a few years ago, the inaugural edition was won by Britain’s Lizzie Deignen with a 30km solo attack. I’m not at all ashamed to admit that I shouted encouragement so loudly at the TV that day that my wife felt it necessary to check I wasn’t badly injured.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  Richard M

Love a movie recommendation, thanks.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
10 months ago

I already had bad taste.

David Morley
David Morley
10 months ago

I never find anything suggested by Netflix that I actually want to watch. I find this annoying, but perhaps I should be reassured.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
10 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

An interesting point; and likewise, across a whole range of media where algorithms are supposed to “know” what i like. I set great store in escaping being captured in them.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
10 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

I find their recommendations terribly helpful. Whatever they recommend I will definitely not want to watch. Switch to Premier or even ITVX and follow my tastes.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
10 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

Thanks to innumerable YouTube uploads, I discovered William Shatner was constantly working all over TV and theater well before his StarTrek fame. Netflix, like HBO, are filth factories. Kicked them out of my house long ago.

Last edited 10 months ago by Allison Barrows
Philip Burrell
Philip Burrell
10 months ago

Filth factories! That sounds a bit “Mary Whitehouse” to me. Netflix has got way too many programmes that all replicate each other, presumably because of algorithms. However HBO is almost universally credited with having produced some of the best ever TV series. This is the home of The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Band of Brothers, Succession, My Brilliant Friend, Veep, Deadwood, Chernobyl and loads more for goodness sake. If that is filth I have thoroughly enjoyed wallowing in it for many years.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
10 months ago
Reply to  Philip Burrell

Yes, you’re right. My husband gave me the boxed set of “Band of Brothers”, and I thank HBO for having aired it. But it also gave us “Oz”, which was so utterly depraved and graphic I cancelled my subscription – one I’d held since the early 80s.
We didn’t have HBO when “The Sopranos” aired, but we watched all of it obsessively. I can’t think where: A&E?

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago

You sound a bit fearful which leads to being narrow minded.

Chipoko
Chipoko
10 months ago
Reply to  Clare Knight

What a patronising comment! Uggh!

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  Chipoko

“Patronizing” to someone who thinks Neflix is a “filth factory”?

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago

Good grief what a drastic reaction, “Filth” I hardly think so. They have some very informative, in-depth documentaries. I always find something interesting as I have eclectic taste. Isn’t it download not upload?

Last edited 10 months ago by Clare Knight
Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

They used do the “since you watched this you’ll probably like this” which was really annoying, because nine times out of ten I had only watched a few minutes of “this” and realized it wasn’t for me.

Sophy T
Sophy T
10 months ago

Try Korean drama – there’s much more to it than Parasite and Squid Game.
Beautifully written, filmed and acted with great stories and none of the tiresome social justice lectures which infect Western dramas.

Bill Bailey
Bill Bailey
10 months ago
Reply to  Sophy T

Agreed! In fact I’ve re-watched many of them but sometimes ‘jumping’ along the story line to the bits for the characters I enjoy most. Mind you it does help that very few of their ‘romance’ storylines see people engaged in a running striptease to the bedroom. Quite what meaningful satisfaction or relationship anyone would get from such liaisons is beyond me.
I also love their eclectic take on religion.
Mind you IF I ever travel to South Korea, I’ll make sure I avoid like the plague any heavy tipper trucks. Their drivers all seem to be incompetent speed merchants in trucks with no brakes or else paid hit men. NOR will I EVER talk to anyone who has Chaebol links. Upsetting them seeming to inevitably lead to a rendezvous with such a tipper truck.
Finally, I’ll carefully enquire about any paranormal activity before I visit anywhere.
The only sad news is that in reality, given the sexual indiscretions reported in the press, they seem much like the rest of us.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  Bill Bailey

Actually, a running striptease to the bedroom can be rather fun.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
10 months ago
Reply to  Sophy T

When the Boat Comes In and I Claudius are currently being rerun on BBC4

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
10 months ago
Reply to  Sophy T

I’d like to live there. Anything to escape the torture of drab didacticism and self-hate. Not being able to speak Korean would only enhance the relief.

Chipoko
Chipoko
10 months ago

“… the torture of drab didacticism and self-hate.
I love it!

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  Sophy T

It’s a matter of taste. I love having the choice because I remember the days of two channels on tv that ended a midnight. How joyous it is to be able to watch a movie on a sleepless night. How boring it must have been to have to live to be a hundred with no tv or movies. Imagine that your housebound with only the radio for company. Of course people who are blind or deaf deal with that all their lives.

Last edited 10 months ago by Clare Knight
Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
10 months ago

It occurs to me that Netflix probably has enough collected personal info and preferences data to be running a dating app.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
10 months ago

The said truth : very few attractive offerings on Netflix

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
10 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

If you can find the strength of will to sieve through 49 out of 50 offerings, though, you can find some absolute gems. Consider for instance ‘The Watcher’ or perhaps it’s just called ‘Watcher’. A clever, witty, realistic yet slightly surreal take on many small communities and particularly one we had just experienced that was quite remote. Even ‘The Windsors’ was not only amusing, but very precisely foretold the future of the Royal Family. For which they have received no credit.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Not true not even “said” true!

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
10 months ago

Come back, Benny Hill! All is forgiven!

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
10 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

I didn’t think KS was old enough to remember Benny Hill. Also not univerally aclaimed – the Yanks seemed to think it was full of smut. There’s no accounting for taste.

Jenny Caneen
Jenny Caneen
10 months ago
Reply to  Doug Pingel

Probably, and yet it got broadcast in Provo, UT in the 70s!! An area notoriously disinclined to (public) consumption of smut.

Richard Pearse
Richard Pearse
10 months ago
Reply to  Doug Pingel

Dude! The yanks loved it! I still watch snippets on YouTube

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  Doug Pingel

Did they, are you sure about that?

Benjamin Greco
Benjamin Greco
10 months ago

It’s the algorithms stupid, give me a break. Netflix isn’t giving us bad taste; we watch Netflix because we already have bad taste. Television has been making us dumber since its inception, the algorithms just speed up the process. Before algorithms there was Nielsen, at least in the US. The people who serve up the garbage we watch have always taken their cues from us and we have always blamed them for our bad taste.
You don’t have to watch what they tell you to, don’t blame them because you are lazy. We have all been Slouching toward Bethlehem for a long time now. (See, I love Joan Didion too, and I’d rather spend time reading her than watching Netflix!)

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  Benjamin Greco

One can do both. I’d never read Didion but after watching the documentary I ordered a couple of her books from the library. So please don’t say”we” when making a criticism it’s very annoying. Instead say I, and take ownership of your observations as projections.

Benjamin Greco
Benjamin Greco
10 months ago
Reply to  Clare Knight

We take ownership of the observation that you are a ninny.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  Benjamin Greco

That’s actually funny! But who are “we”?

Ralph Hanke
Ralph Hanke
10 months ago

I love how beautifully Kathleen writes. I read her, regardless of topic, just for the beautifully formed sentences, paragraphs, and structures.

E.B. White would be so proud.

And, personally, I think Netflix has an over-arching category it uses to make recommendations to me: predominantly horrible crud.

Which is why I do not fear AI in the least. How can we possibly take it seriously? It’s like going to the pub around 11ish on Friday to get credible opinions about just about anything.

Happy Friday all.

Peter Kwasi-Modo
Peter Kwasi-Modo
10 months ago

I am not a Netflix subscriber, but I listen to the radio when it’s my turn to cook. The BBC “algorithm” for content creation is based on these heuristics: [1] Ignore the demographic that actually listens (i.e. grumpy old gits like me) [2] Focus on the demographic that you would like to be listening (typically mid-teens to early 20’s), [3] Assume that the audience comprises proto-luvvies who, by constant nudging, can be converted to full luvvy-hood.

Dr Stock does not need an algorithm to select the subject of her next article. She can write about anything and make it interesting. Thanks, as always.

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
10 months ago

‘Proto-luvvies’ should enter our lexicon, like ‘virtue-signalling’. Maybe also ‘halfawoke’ to ‘fullyawoke’?

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago

And perhaps “asleep” or “unconscious”.

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
10 months ago
Reply to  Clare Knight

To the contrary, Clare, it is the non-woke who are awake, and the woke who are like the living dead.

Mark Goodhand
Mark Goodhand
10 months ago

I’d love to be able to supplement the algorithms with crude filters.

E.g. “British, 20th century”.

Mona Malnorowski
Mona Malnorowski
10 months ago

A couple of side notes here – firstly I do think there’s genuine cause for concern that we are all prey to the whims of the various tech platforms’ algorithms. I’m thinking more of YouTube than Netflix when I write this, but I do have to wonder (tinfoil helmet alert!) how far those algorithms are purely reactive (YouTube in particular seems to think I want to watch pretty much exactly what I’ve already watched) and how far we might be ‘nudged’ towards (or more pertinently, away from) particular types of programming.
YouTube is already notorious for shadow-banning content it deems problematic, so I can easily see the likes of Netflix covertly weaning us off the things we signed up for and actually enjoy, and steering us towards cheaper and perhaps more ideologically acceptable forms of entertainment….
Secondly, I take exception in Kathleen’s otherwise excellent article to her referring to a critic as “she”. I find the opinions of trusted critics / bloggers indispensable in providing me with my next movie/TV fix (and as a lifelong film fan I have a fairly large appetite) but with apologies to the Sisterhood, the ones whose opinions and insight I respect are exclusively male. I got sick of female critics with shallow opinions spouting the usual ideological nonsense, so if anyone can enlighten me with some names, feel free!
PS I thought I was the only one who watched that Joan Didion documentary…

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago

Why would you think you’re the only one who watched the Joan Didion documentary?

Last edited 10 months ago by Clare Knight
Chipoko
Chipoko
10 months ago
Reply to  Clare Knight

That’s silly.”
Now you’re resorting to ‘school-marm’ put-downs! Why make your ad hominem attack on that one line of Mona’s (probably intentionally tongue-in-cheek) and ignore the expanded points (rather well made) she makes in her post?

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
10 months ago

Try the Critical Drinker?

Filipa Antonia Barata de Araujo
Filipa Antonia Barata de Araujo
10 months ago

Netflix doesn’t want us to think that much about what we’re watching. You stop noticing details after two episodes and most Netflixers believe either they watch the show in one go, either their genitals will fall off. The idea is to watch series after series in a zombified way, so criticism isn’t required by the studio.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago

” Most Netflixers believe they either……….” How do you know what most Netflix watchers believe?

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
10 months ago

“These include such categories as: “Goofy Comedies about Royalty”, “Violent Foreign Mother Son Relationship Movies”, “Understated Australian Movies”, and “Award Winning Underdog Movies”.”
This is more than a tad reminiscent of the arcane and recondite board game shop in Little Britain.

T M Murray
T M Murray
10 months ago

I really enjoyed this especially since it is now known that Marc Bernays Randolph, co-founder and CEO of NetFlix, is the great nephew of Edward Bernays, the father of propaganda (who was also the nephew of Sigmund Freud). A little peek into the history of Edward Bernays ought to raise some questions about how far his genre of ‘influence’ is still alive and well in modern entertainment with its algorithm driven ‘choices’.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
10 months ago

Netflix seems to getting an unduly bad rap on here. Sure it has the same % of dross on it as other media sources – but it also has gems. Sadly they seem to be harder to unearth – but they are definitely there.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

Exactly and great documentaries. If don’t you don’t know about hoarders the docs on them is a real eye opener.

Last edited 10 months ago by Clare Knight
Andrew D
Andrew D
10 months ago

‘You can hardly blame a director for not knowing, all along, that she was competing against…’
‘… it also gave the professional critic a power that is now fast disappearing. She could, with some authoritative pull on her readership’s attention…’
This usage grates. Traditionally the masculine has been the default third person pronoun. ‘He’ also embraced ‘she’. Some might decry that, but is it any better to make the feminine pronoun the default? ‘She’ doesn’t embrace ‘he’ in common parlance, so the reader is given the false impression that directors and critics tend to be female. What are we to do? Please don’t say the answer is ‘they’.

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
10 months ago
Reply to  Andrew D

In many academic contexts and other leftist enclaves, “she” has replaced “he” as the default pronoun. Why do I object to it? The same reason conservatives object to everything… because the way things have been reflects an accretion of social wisdom, folk insight, etc. And they should only be changed with specific purposes and discrete outcomes envisioned. It is the wisdom of “Chesterton’s Gate.”

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
10 months ago

The medium is the message with Netflix. As the moving image goes, his is a comparatively new visual medium comprising of:-
-Poor ‘green light’ commissioning decisions with regard to script quality, leading to the ‘Netflix look’ of perfunctory direction and flat storytelling at a level that would not pass in a heritage Hollywood studio
-These same in-house productions are financially competitive as Netflix studio features take up a portion of the budget of TV series that have spiralled in the last 20 years. It’s more important that the platform has its branded product, much as has been copied by Sky in recent year
-The commissioning of modern auteurs to produce features or series with a strong left-liberal slant gives Netflix an immediate ideological position in the progressive socios
-A huge emphasis on teenage storytelling reflecting the cheap, mass access of the young to the plaftform. This has somewhat marred the platform’s attempt to revive the fantasy/horror genre for the small screen – all but Mike Flanagan have been outclassed by bigger budget, better funded Apple productions.

David Murphy
David Murphy
10 months ago

My wife and I get endless amusement out of Netflix’s algorithmic inspired recommendations for us; the result of us all (me, her, grandchildren, etc) identifying as the the same person in the ‘Whose viewing’ tab.

M Shewbridge
M Shewbridge
10 months ago

I don’t even watch TV now.

I had two epiphanies a few years back and they put me off popular culture in general.

1. As Stock describes, it is frequently our dumb, impulsive limbic system that is targeted, because it is more predictable and shouts more loudly than the cerebral cortex. It knows what we want, but not what we will value. As that famous philosopher, Alex James from Blur understands, ‘Getting what you want doesn’t make you happy, it just gets you what you want.’

This trend towards instantly accessible but not necessarily good art has been progressing at least since Classical overtook Baroque.

2. There’s just too much of everything for me to sit and consume entertainment; there’s also so much to do, learn and think about. This is a wonderful time for those who can independently curate their own lives; a terrible time for those who outsource the task.

I think there is a subtle shift taking place – from the superficial, consumerist and materialistic individualism of the Twentieth Century – to a more considered individualism that focuses more on the relationship between the self and the outside world.

It’s only just starting, but top-down curation and influence simply can’t survive in the face of the individual’s new ability (and necessity) to define things for himself.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
10 months ago

What is NETFLIX anybody?

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago

What do you mean?

Russell Sharpe
Russell Sharpe
10 months ago

“To work out what you might want to watch next, Netflix first classifies its programmes into at least 76,897 “microgenres”…. In any case: after humans classify all the available products into microgenres, machine learning takes over…”
I don’t think this is right. My understanding was that the microgenres are the output of – not the input to – the linear algebra algorithm, which identifies the so-called ‘principal components’ of the data simply using the set of preferences given by each user. I daresay the names given to the microgenres are supplied by humans – though in the new ChatGPT world even that might no longer be true – but the microgenres themselves (ie the overlapping categories into which the films naturally divide) are derived objectively by decomposing the matrix of data in the right way. Something something something eigenvectors.

Last edited 10 months ago by Russell Sharpe
Norman Powers
Norman Powers
10 months ago
Reply to  Russell Sharpe

Yup. Same magic used by the Twitter community notes feature. But if we expected journalists to understand the algorithms they opine on how would they ever find enough things to write about? 🙂

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
10 months ago
Reply to  Russell Sharpe

“the microgenres themselves are derived objectively by decomposing the matrix of data in the right way”
Huh? Using the word “objectively” here gives the very false impression that this process is not influenced by individual human judgments. But the creation of the “matrix of data” was itself the result of human judgment. And however the algorithm itself was created, was the result of human judgment.
For example, Netflix doesn’t have categories like this: “Sitcoms where red clothes predominate.” It doesn’t have categories like that because the stories, the categories, everything about all this artform, is the result of human decision-making (and costume color isn’t of interest to us). It’s all people choosing things according to their intuitions, artistic lights, whims, desires, etc. It’s the opposite of “objective.”

P Branagan
P Branagan
10 months ago

Holy God! what an awful boring article – practically unreadable and utterly irrelevant.
Gave up reading word for word after the first 5 or 6 paragraphs. Skipped to the end hoping for something even vaguely rational or meaningful to emerge. Nada, nothing.
Just shows most of academic ‘philosophy’ has lost it’s way. Or, should I say, to be appropriately woke, academic philosophy has lost HER way.
Awful, truly awful rubbish.

BTW apologies to all for being so diffident in expressing my true feelings.

T M Murray
T M Murray
10 months ago

One more thing: basketball documentaries are a personal addiction and I have hoovered up all of them as well as any feature films that have hoops as a theme. While you’re getting into sports-based culture, I can highly recommend this niche in sports entertainment because basketball is so much more than a game… and I’d start with ‘Hoop Dreams’. It is highly addictive so beware!

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  T M Murray

More than a game, how so? Can’t one say that of all sports?

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
10 months ago
Reply to  T M Murray

It’s just big girls netball

Theresa Guirato
Theresa Guirato
10 months ago

So are you now going to the Arizona-Jacksonville game @Wembley Oct 1?