Just how many people watch Netflix, and what they’re watching, is the subject of endless fascination among Netflix fans and consternation among Hollywood executives. Netflix is notoriously stingy with its deep mine of data, so much so that its recent revelation of “binge-raced” shows, that is, original series gulped down in less than 24 hours, was a big deal in the corridors of movie studios and ad agencies. Now Nielsen is trying to settle, once and for all, just how many people are watching Netflix.
As the New York Times reports, Nielsen is essentially sticking with its method of tracking 44,000 households with tiny pager-like devices, and they will release data to subscribers about who’s watching what Netflix shows, particularly the shows Netflix licenses. But it’ll only be people who watch Netflix on a TV, not a laptop, tablet, or smartphone. To be fair, that’s useful for TV executives, at least in the sense that they’ll know what people are watching instead of their shows. But for those of us wondering how Netflix shows do, it illustrates the futility of ratings.
Take that “binge-racing” report. At number twenty sits Aziz Ansari’s superb comedy series Master of None, which implies the show is being watched by hundreds of thousands of people, at a minimum. And yet, a separate survey, of 500 people, half of whom had Netflix, claimed almost nobody was watching it. Which, in turn, contradicts NBC’s data, which found three million people watched it. Nor is this a problem limited to Netflix; whenever you look at, say, the most popular show in each state, you find a sharp disparity between the highest-rated shows on TV and what people are actually watching.
Netflix adds to the complication because nothing goes “off the air,” particularly its originals, making Netflix shows more like books or albums than live TV. This weekend, Stranger Things will likely see a huge bump, thanks to Halloween and the second season arriving next week. How do you count that in the ratings? Do you add it to everyone who’s ever watched the show? Do you divvy it up by time period? And does it matter at all, since Netflix doesn’t sell ads in the first place?
Furthermore, Netflix makes its money by catering to sometimes very narrow slices of audiences, by licensing programming from around the world. How many Neilsen households are tuning into Netflix’s extensive slate of Korean dramas, or the Israeli terrorism drama Fauda? We may never know, exactly, how many people are watching each Netflix show. But the point might be that Netflix caters to viewers in a way broadcast networks can’t.
(via the New York Times)