Netflix, as we all know ad nauseum, does not share its viewership data with anyone. Not with creators, not with partners, and certainly not with the investing public or pesky looky-loos like journalists. It’s simply too valuable and must be locked away in the vault but for the precious few shamans who can view it.
When Netflix shares anything besides its subscriber numbers and financials, it’s a special day, indeed. Like Tuesday during its third-quarter earnings report.
Perhaps feeling puckish over its good results, the company’s leaders decided to give everyone a peek at one of their ankles, thrilling Netflix’s hardcore devotees. I am going to show you, too, but unlike Netflix, let me give you advance warning: If you have a heart condition, ask your doctor first if it’s okay to view the graphic from page 5 of Netflix’s shareholder letter, the one that’s designed to show everyone a “good indicator that our shows are breaking out around the planet.”
Okay, here it is:
Netflix won't disclose viewership numbers…but how bout some Instagram follow counts to show just how popular their stars are! pic.twitter.com/QTFQnlPt0B
— John Koblin (@koblin) October 16, 2018
Instagram follower counts!
This is just like when I found out that most “secret sauces” are Thousand Island dressing.
First, short of Twitter followers, there may be no more manipulable figure than Instagram follower totals. In fact, I just opened up a new browser window and started to type “how to buy” and Google autocompleted my query by suggesting “Instagram followers.”
Let’s stipulate for the moment, though, that Instagram follower accounting is sacrosanct, and no one could possibly manipulate this fortress of rectitude. Netflix is suggesting here that there’s a clear causality between it releasing a show or movie featuring an actor and the rising popularity of that actor’s Instagram. It’s also implying that there are no other factors that could possibly be influencing their growth. Like time. Other projects. Being good at Instagram. Being featured on Instagram’s Explore tab. And so forth.
It’s also positing that social-media popularity is, in some way, additional proof that this is why the company continues to grow.
This is not the first time that Netflix has tried to demonstrate its viewership for particular shows and movies with questionable outside metrics. Back in the spring, in a New York Magazine cover story, Ted Sarandos, the company’s creative chief, used IMDb as a yardstick for the success of its shows:
To answer my questions about the relative popularity of shows without actually answering them, Sarandos shows me a chart he’s printed out of the most popular TV shows as ranked by IMDb users. While the accuracy of the site’s ratings has been questioned in the past, Sarandos says IMDb is a “good indicator of what works on Netflix, because it’s a pretty net-savvy, entertainment-centric person that gives feedback. It’s better than Rotten Tomatoes.” The chart lists the top-30 new shows of the 2016–17 TV season. “Fourteen of them are Netflix original shows,” he brags. “Now this is global, so like Riverdale is a CW show [in the States], but it premieres as a Netflix original somewhere else. No one else on this list has more than three shows.”
Later, Sarandos cites IMDb again as evidence for the success of one of Netflix’s original movies, the teen-targeted romantic comedy The Kissing Booth. Sarandos calls it “one of the most-watched movies in the country, and maybe in the world” — but of course he won’t offer me any internal data to back that up. “In [IMDb’s] popularity rankings right now, it’s the No. 4 movie behind Deadpool 2, Avengers: Infinity War, and Solo,” he says. “Jacob Elordi is the male lead. Three weeks ago on the IMDb Star-o-Meter, which is how they rank their popularity, he was No. 25,000. Today he is the No. 1 star in the world. And Joey King, the female lead, went from like No. 17,000 to No. 6. This is a movie that I bet you’d never heard of until I just mentioned it to you.”
The IMDb Star-o-Meter. Seriously. What’s next? Yelp reviews? eBay feedback? Five stars, great seller, would do business with again.
It gets worse: The analysts who cover Netflix are apparently so happy for anything, they’re excited to have this wonderful new metric.
Followers should be FAR more important to talent in Hollywood that Nielsen ratings — followers last beyond your current creative project https://t.co/FuYj86Sap0
— Rich Greenfield (@RichBTIG) October 17, 2018
With all due respect to Greenfield, this is ridiculous. Instagram followers can’t be redeemed for more money the way that actual ratings and box office sales can for the talent who make TV shows and movies.
The current laws requiring disclosure of key data that tells investors how a business is actually performing are woefully minimal. I would love for every company to be required to share far more information than they currently do. But for now, this is the system we have. So Netflix can choose to keep its data to itself. That’s its right. I have no problem with that. But what is insulting and unfortunate is when it puts forth junk data in its place. Do you really think Netflix is running its business based on the IMDb Star-o-Meter and Instagram popularity? If so, then I have a stock to sell you.