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This is the counterintuitive benefit to viewers if Netflix releases more audience numbers

How more transparency from Netflix about its viewership could only help the streaming giant make better programming.

This is the counterintuitive benefit to viewers if Netflix releases more audience numbers
[Photo: Thibault Penin/Unsplash]

Netflix recently tweeted that The Irishman was watched by 26.4 million accounts globally within its first seven days on the platform.

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This is part of Netflix’s new plan to be what Scott Stuber, head of original films at the notoriously data-secretive company, described as a move on the company’s part to be more transparent. “You’ll see more numbers from us, more transparency, more articulation of what’s working and not,” he told Variety. “Because we recognize it’s important, sometimes to the creative community. It’s important to the press. It’s important to everything. So we were definitely headed in that direction as a company.”

It’s a move that has been met with media skepticism. For one thing, the public is operating on faith that Netflix is accurately reporting what its customers watch, when and how they watch it, and for how long. (It would likely be a violation of securities law if it did not.) We know Netflix has all the data, but its pronouncement that “for series, due to their highly variable length, we count a viewer if they substantially complete at least one episode (70%). For a film, it is if they substantially complete the film (70%)” has not mollified observers who can be incredulous that more than 40 million households watched You in its first four weeks of release, or 73 million watched the Adam Sandler movie Murder Mystery, or 80 million watched Sandra Bullock in Bird Box. So far, the company has only made select data public, and because the announcements are universally touting Netflix’s originals, there’s no real benchmark for what these numbers mean versus the traditional TV and film metrics, which get released daily and weekly.

Not that the dean of TV measurement isn’t trying. In the case of The Irishman, a few days after Netflix made those figures known, Nielsen SVOD—which tracks streaming the same way it does TV, by using Nielsen families—put out some numbers of its own, claiming that Martin Scorsese’s latest reached 17.1 million unique views in the United States in its first five days. Netflix is a global service, and it released its first week results, making Nielsen’s data both myopic and less than edifying—for investors, media, or viewers—though one can do the mental gymnastics to sync up Nielsen’s info with Netflix’s and say close enough.

For the handful of Netflix movies that gets limited theatrical releases, like The Irishman and Marriage Story, the company has not participated in the industry standard of sharing box-office grosses with the public. Which, in a town famous for singing its own praises any chance it gets, inevitably leads to assumptions that the latest Netflix theatrical release, whatever it may be, flopped.

Going forward, revealing what Stuber calls the “full business story” could curtail those kinds of negative perceptions. Or at least help even sophisticated observers reconcile box-office data, which is reported in dollars, with Netflix viewership, which is reported in member households.

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But how much does this data—so coveted by Netflix’s rivals and the media—even matter to subscribers themselves? Does the fact that Netflix says that 33 million people watched Our Planet actually encourage engagement on the programs Netflix most wants users to watch?

The answer could well be yes—albeit indirectly. “I think it’s very important for talent to understand that not only can they get paid really well by Netflix,” says Rich Greenfield, analyst and partner at LightShed Media, “but they reach as many, if not more, people going through Netflix than they would for the traditional distribution system. Everybody knows when they put a movie out that we know exactly, based on how many tickets sold, how many people got to see that movie. Everyone in Hollywood cares about two things: money and fame. Netflix is certainly compensating well, so the money side is certainly there. The other side is demonstrating that you can get the same level of fame, and part of fame is awards like Golden Globe nominations and Oscars and Emmys. But the other side of fame is just how visible you are. How many people are actually, you know, viewing your content.”

Greenfield’s theory is that the more the talent community buys into Netflix, the bigger the audience gets, which in turn means that everyone involved makes more money. “The better the talent becomes who wants to work with Netflix leads to better content for consumers, so that the net benefit is that consumers are going to get better content on Netflix than they otherwise would get,” he says.

Case in point: legendary filmmaker Martin Scorcese. He might not be thrilled with how streaming has taken over—or that The Irishman will be watched on phones and tablets—but he understands the game. Now that his latest film appears to be a success, that not only serves as more incentive to keep the partnership going, but also to encourage other heavyweights to follow suit.

Of course, there’s also a direct way that the numbers encourage audiences to hit “play” on 6 Underground or Marriage Story. They simply want to be part of the conversation in our social media-driven society. Consumers follow the buzz, whether it leads to hate-watching or an enjoyable binge.

It may not matter to most viewers the number of other viewers who watched a given film or series, but if it means better content—both on Netflix and on social media—then it’s worth it to Netflix to withstand the occasional embarrassment.

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And if the transparency strategy works out for Netflix, then it’s only a matter of time before other streaming giants follow suit.

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