One of the primary selling points of Netflix over the years has been its algorithm, how it gets to know your viewing habits, using them to craft a platform experience that is unique to you and your TV and movie tastes, replacing the hours spent haunting the aisle of your local Blockbuster (if you’re over 35) with efficient, data-driven suggestions. What could possibly go wrong? Ask Boe Jerkowitz.
Now HBO is taking a swipe at Netflix’s algorithmic tendencies with a new site and campaign called “Recommended By Humans,” in which the WarnerMedia cable channel enlisted real people to recommend their favorite shows (and paid them, because “we’re not monsters”), as well as collecting a huge cache of social media suggestions for people to dip into.
It’s a smart ploy, positioning one of Netflix’s biggest (albeit flawed) strengths as a weakness, as a means to differentiate HBO. It’s not unlike the one used by Apple Music against Spotify when it first launched in 2015, with Jimmy Iovine telling The Guardian, “Algorithms can’t do it alone. They’re very handy, and you can’t do something of this scale without ’em, but you need a strong human element.”
Of course, for HBO this campaign comes at an interesting time. It’s no longer simply a cable channel that programs a weekly TV lineup but now part of a larger streaming business that’s starting to look a lot more like . . . Netflix. As the company readies the impending launch of HBO Max, perhaps the more accurate tagline would be “Recommended By Humans . . . for now.”