The new Netflix rating system gets a thumbs-down

For the love of god, do you see what I did there?

We’re all busy people. That’s why I’ve spent the last two hours in the sun reading a book about the Revolutions of 1989 – god knows it’s been a non-stop afternoon.

Knowing what a bunch of busy so-and-sos we are, Netflix has helpfully decided to overhaul its ranking and recommendations systems – to help us decide what to watch when we’re pushed for time during our next entire evening in front of the sofa.

But by changing their star ratings system to a simple thumbs-up, thumbs-down interface, I feel like they’ve rather muddied the waters.

Five-star nuances

The old idea of ratings was simple enough; you rate something from one to five stars, and Netflix uses your input to recommend other programmes and films.

Narrowing these down to a thumbs-up, thumbs-down system rather removes much of the nuances of rating and reviewing films.

Because people’s tastes can be so fluid and subjective – imagine Nicolas Cage in Face/Off…Now imagine him in Left Behind – it makes things more difficult when it comes to making some Netflix picks.


Good thing they don’t have Vampire’s Kiss available in the UK – it would completely mess with the ratings system. Is it good? Is it bad? Who knows?

Example: at the moment me and the wife are watching seven seasons of Archer right from the very beginning. Between episodes we’re recommended something called Pacific Blue. I have no idea what this is, and from the prone position on the sofa that streaming services seem to enjoy imagining their subscribers from, there’s nothing much they think we can do other than to give it a try.

But again, with our time being so precious (I’m taking a break from the sun to write this and listen to the Leeds match), I don’t know that I’m willing and able to spend any amount of time blindly giving something a go.

But because streaming services’ goal is just to get you to keep watching, it’s probably better to risk giving the viewer more impetus to need to discover the things they’ll like.

And besides, considering Netflix judges what we’re watching rather than rating to make its big business decisions, it won’t work out too badly for them.

Innovation in programming

It’s a fairly well-known example but still pretty brilliant for us data nerds. The whole reason Netflix decided to create a new version of House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey wasn’t a matter of throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. With an eye on their customers’ viewing habits, they noticed that people who watched the original BBC version also watched a lot of Kevin Spacey films, and vice versa.

Having the ability to interpret that hard, single-channel data gives Netflix, Amazon Prime et al the confidence to invest in licensing TV rights packages, as well as creating new viewing pleasures – like the mini-Marvel universe we see through the eyes of Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. This gives streaming services a real foot up on cable and satellite TV. And having cancelled Sky TV myself a month ago, I’m really not missing it when I’m paying a lot less money per month for a lot more choice of what I want to watch, instead of what happens to be on.

Happy as I am though to wade into the wide world of online TV and film services to find something new whenever I open up the apps, I was a bit alarmed to open Netflix this morning to be presented with its other new feature – some sort of online dating service offering me a percentage match on their range of titles.

(And let’s not get into that too much. Some of the most fascinating-looking documentaries I’ve stumbled across today gave me matches in the sixty-percent range, while some actual dreadful BBC sitcoms ranked in the nineties.)

This clashes somewhat with another of the ways they recommend programmes and films to me – the ‘Because You Watched…’ ribbon.

Because you watched…

Right now I’m looking at two Julia Roberts films, J-Lo and Jennifer Aniston – “because you watched Serendipity”.


No thanks!

While I can’t argue that this is a thing that happened, it’s only because I personally enjoy the work of John Cusack. Given the apparent distinct lack of hitmen and record shop owners in the films I’ve been shown here, I can’t say I’m likely ever to give them a go.

The same goes for Trailer Park Boys, which I watched the first episode of and decided not to any more – again, time being precious, I’m not saying it was downright terrible but I’m just not inclined to watch any more.

I didn’t apply a star rating for Trailer Park Boys, but if I’d given the show one star it wouldn’t show up again. However, now that there’s no better way to communicate this than a thumbs-down, I might not be shown anything similar again, even if it’s something I would otherwise check out.

This is the rub – to see more of what I think I’d like, and less of what I wouldn’t, I need to go thumb-crazy over all these menus, instead of spending the time actually watching things and finding out. It needs the sort of time that perhaps Netflix assumes we’ve got – seeing as we’re wasting away on our couches receiving constant prompts to see if we’re still watching.

That assumption isn’t really appreciated – not to sound snobby, but I’ve got better stuff to do. Like complain about it, apparently.

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