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We have some questions about Netflix’s massive ‘Murder Mystery’ viewership numbers

Netflix says the new Jennifer Aniston-Adam Sandler comedy scored the biggest “opening weekend” for a Netflix flick, with 30-plus million “accounts.” How are they crunching that figure?

We have some questions about Netflix’s massive ‘Murder Mystery’ viewership numbers
Luke Evans as Charles Cavendish (left), Adam Sandler as Nick Spitz (center), and Jennifer Aniston as Audrey Spitz (right) in Murder Mystery. [Photo: Scott Yamano/Netflix]

Good news for studios thigh-deep in reboots and sequels looking for a reason why Men in Black: International and Shaft (2019) biffed at the box office last weekend. It’s definitely not that those were ill-advised cashgrabs, cynically courting nostalgia for antique IP. No, apparently nobody saw those films because everyone instead stayed home to watch the entertainment tentpole of the summer, Murder Mystery.

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Well, at least that’s what happened according to Netflix.

According to the streaming kingpin, the Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston Clue-on-a-cruise flick is a record-breaking juggernaut. Nearly 31 million “accounts” watched Murder Mystery in its first three days, making it the biggest hit in Netflix’s history. Before the studio breaks out the champagne and charts a course for Murder Mystery 2: Space Murder, they might want to check in and see how their big announcement played out on Movie Twitter.

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Many people in the know found these numbers suspicious, and their skepticism is well earned. Netflix is notoriously cagey when it comes to releasing viewership, and the company usually only does so to quantify a big cultural phenomenon like Stranger Things. Last week, the company announced that Ava Duvernay’s Central Park Five series When They See Us was its most-watched series every day since it premiered, which made perfect sense because of all the conversation around the show. Last December, Netflix proclaimed that Bird Box established the record Murder Mystery just broke, and considering that the Sandra Bullock-fronted thriller arrived while everyone was home for the holidays and bored, the information checked out.

And then we have Murder Mystery. At 45% on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s Sandler’s biggest critical hit since signing his landmark Netflix deal in 2014 (and re-upping in 2017), but it hasn’t left the slightest cultural footprint. Nobody is quoting their favorite Murder Mystery lines into memedom. Nobody is padding out their GIF arsenal with memorable moments. Hardly anyone seems to be talking about this film at all. So how on Earth could it be the most-watched opening in Netflix history?

If the value of movies—ostensibly pieces of art—has to come down to a box office horserace, then horse speed should at least be measured as accurately as possible. Netflix is a public company, so it can’t legally use incorrect numbers without opening itself up to lawsuits, but it sure seems like there’s some fudging at play. Here are some questions Fast Company has about how Netflix is measuring its viewership.

  • How many people actually watched the entire movie?

Netflix has said before that it counts 70% of the runtime as a “view.” Did a lot of people not make it past the ~2/3 point? When we’re talking about the easiest possible method of watching a film, it matters whether a significant amount of people couldn’t be bothered to finish.

  • How many people intentionally watched the movie?

Unless users turn off their devices, Netflix autoplays a suggested offering when the previous selection is finished. And as I learned the hard way earlier this year, Netflix always suggests its original content and often its shiniest new object.

  • What counts as an account?

If there are multiple users on a single account, are they all counted as individual accounts? Are multiple platforms (different devices, connected TVs) each considered an account? Are instances of illegal password sharing somehow monitored and technically factored as accounts? (This last idea is unlikely, but since the means for providing metrics is so vague, it’s literally anybody’s guess—unless you work at Netflix and you know for sure, in which case could you please tell me?

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  • Why is the phrasing so inconsistent?

The way Netflix describes its viewership has evolved over the years. When Adam Sandler’s first Netflix original, The Ridiculous Six, landed, the company announced it had been “seen more times in 30 days than any other movie in Netflix history.” By the time Bird Box squawked onto screens last December, the phrasing settled into where we are now, i.e., it was “seen by 26M subscribers” in its opening weekend. (Of course, back in April, Netflix touted that Ben Affleck’s dadbait action flick Triple Frontier was “viewed 52 million times” in its first month. Both of these ways of phrasing seem  designed to elide the fact that Netflix has no way of knowing how many people actually watch its content (per viewing per account). Especially now that it’s saying that 30-plus million accounts watched Murder Mystery. Can accounts actually watch stuff? Do they know they’re watching? Do they have consciousness? Do we?

What’s troubling is that Netflix never discloses average or bad numbers for viewership, just those for its bangers. With more transparency, we would know for sure how a beloved-but-canceled series like One Day at a Time stacked up against Triple Frontier. Knowing how many people steadily stuck with ODAAT throughout its run would be way more informative than learning that given the option of watching the brand-new Adam Sandler/Jennifer Aniston vehicle last weekend, nearly half of all U.S. subscribers said “Eh, I guess so.”

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