Big Data TV: David Simon & Beau Willimon on Entertainment by The Numbers

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While HBO has dominated the so-called "golden age of television" since Tony Soprano suffered his first panic attack back in 1999, Netflix has held its own over the last few years, with hits like "House of Cards" and "Orange is the New Black." 

The Netflix model for programming depends on data: The company analyzed what its customers watched, and learned that viewers enjoyed the actor Kevin Spacey, the director David Fincher, and political thrillers. Those trends—and the fact that the British mini-series "House of Cards" had also gained a following—led to the creation of the American "House of Cards" with Spacey and Fincher at the helm. 

In a conversation with John Hockenberry at the Tribeca Film Festival, Beau Willimon, screenwriter and show runner of the American "House of Cards," and David Simon, creator and writer of "The Wire" and "Treme," discuss the benefits and drawbacks of data-driven entertainment, and the evolving field of television. 

While Willimon says today's new approach to entertainment is the reason "House of Cards" is so popular, Simon doubts that "The Wire" could have never survived in today's culture.

Big Data and Entertainment

Willimon defends Netflix's data-driven approach to programming. He appreciates that the network gives viewers a chance to find shows they never thought they'd enjoy. Simon, who worked at the Baltimore Sun before his foray into television, worries that data analysis serves only to give the audience more of the same.

"I was a journalist," he says. "I didn't care what the audience's pre-suppositions were about the issues I was covering when I started to cover them. I wasn't trying to service the political attitude of the viewers or the readers of the Baltimore Sun...and that's why we have MSNBC and Fox now, so you can watch the news that gratifies what you think you already know about the world."

Entertainment, Simon explains, is heading in the same direction. "What is the entertainment culture contributing? I came out of journalism, and the only stories I'm interested in are what actually might happen in a given city. And that has no currency with audiences."

"Binge Watching" and the Netflix Approach

Even before Netflix released entire seasons of television at once, viewers would "binge watch" shows on the streaming service or on DVD. Willimon remembers binge watching the first three seasons of "The Wire" in just a week and a half.

But Netflix's all-at-once approach liberates screenwriters and showrunners—as did Willimon's two season contract for "House of Cards."

"We did get a two season deal and that really affected the writing," he explains. "Knowing that you would get 26 hours—knowing that you could lay a tiny little grace note in the first episode and it might not boomerang back until 26 hours later, that really liberates you."

The two-season contract, Willimon continues, "frees you from fighting for your life the way my friends who work in network television must—literally you're only as good as your last week's ratings," he says. "So you feel the compulsion to have big cliffhangers or to force or contrive the drama."

Willimon also found freedom in the novelty of the network, cast and crew.

"The biggest thing is that we just had no idea what the hell we were doing. Fincher hadn't worked in TV, I hadn't, Kevin [Spacey] and Robin [Wright] really hadn't, Netflix hadn't. So we had the bliss of ignorance," he says.

On this point, Simon concedes that Netflix's approach does have some benefits. It gives the show runner time to create a world of realistic characters, and to "make a cogent argument for the story you're telling."

In traditional network television, Simon notes, "If the argument has to be answered with 'can you sustain an audience on a Sunday night?,' I have failed consistently over the last 110 hours of television.

"I can't get you to watch a show when I put it on the air," he continues. "If it exists in some streaming form or in a box set and word of mouth has some time, people may or may not find their way back, but actually I don't think what I'm doing quite works for what television, on some level, still remains."

Over a decade ago, Simon explains, "when [HBO] was just throwing stuff up against the wall, 'The Wire' could survive for five years. I'm not sure 'The Wire' could survive now. The stakes are higher. The stakes are higher for HBO now."

A poster from the Tribeca Film Festival.
A poster from the Tribeca Film Festival. ( John Hockenberry )