Game of Thrones ended its ten-year run over the weekend, setting record viewership numbers. According to HBO, more than 19 million people watched the finale on cable or streaming. Yet these early Game of Thrones ratings do more than document the success of a cultural phenomenon. They raise questions about the actual performance of Netflix Originals.
An Era Ends on HBO
Nielsen’s same-day viewing numbers put the final episode viewership for Game of Thrones at 12.7 million. Those numbers, however, only include people who watched traditional cable TV. Adweek got numbers from HBO that included streaming via its HBO Go and HBO Now apps to reach the 19 million number.
Watching the ratings horse race with traditional TV is pretty easy thanks to the decades-long legacy of an advertising-supported industry. TV networks follow the measuring standards set by firms like Nielsen that provide independent verification. It keeps the industry honest and lets everyone compare how TV shows perform.
How Many People Watch Netflix?
Netflix, on the other hand, is much less forthcoming. Since the beginning of its streaming business, the company has refused to share viewership numbers with anyone. Shortly after House of Cards premiered, Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos addressed the topic at a technology conference. “I don’t want to give ratings [for House of Cards], because it is a real apples-to-oranges comparison with network ratings.” Sarandos added later, “I honestly have no motivation” to discuss viewership levels.
Recently, that secretive attitude has begun to change. In its shareholder letters for 2018-Q4 and 2019-Q1, Netflix released numbers that look much bigger than Game of Thrones — at least at first glance.
The company estimated there were “20 million member households around the world enjoying [Spanish original Elite] in its first four weeks on service.” The new superhero series The Umbrella Academy was “watched by 45 million member households in its first four weeks on service.” And the psychological thriller You, which Netflix picked up from Lifetime, “will be watched by over 40 million member households in its first 4 weeks on Netflix.”
Netflix numbers can be deceiving
Those numbers certainly seem bigger than those reported for Game of Thrones, but not when you look closely. First of all, Netflix reports those numbers on a worldwide basis whereas Nielsen and HBO only cite viewership for the United States. If the number of American Netflix subscribers who watched The Umbrella Academy was proportional to the share of Netflix’s overall US membership, then the American viewership would be only 18 million.
More importantly, Netflix calculates viewership differently from the way the TV industry has done it for decades. Netflix’s definition of a TV series’ view, relegated to a footnote in the shareholder letter, describes it as when subscribers “substantially complete at least one episode (70%).” That means if you make it through most of The Umbrella Academy’s first episode, Netflix counts you as having watched the entire season. So how many people watched the entire series? Netflix doesn’t say.
The numbers Nielsen and HBO released for last weekend’s Game of Thrones episode aren’t directly comparable either. Those numbers only apply to a single episode on a single day. When The Wrap reviewed Game of Thrones’ ratings history, it provided a little more insight. In any given minute during the penultimate season, 32.7 million American households watched the show.
Comparing The Umbrella Academy to Game of Thrones is certainly not apples-to-apples. But it is telling that the TV series Netflix chose to hold up to shareholders as a viewership success may have only been watched by half as many people.
Growing Discontent About the Numbers
Not having to please advertisers has been the justification Netflix executives used for their silence. The company’s content is not tied to strict TV streaming guide schedules or predetermined time slots like traditional networks. And a willingness to give content creators flexibility — and big paychecks — has afforded Netflix some leeway. However, Netflix’s reticence for sharing viewership numbers could become a problem as traditional TV companies commission original content for their own streaming services. People in the industry are already taking shots at Netflix’s math.
FX CEO advised journalists to be skeptical of Netflix’s “cherrypicked and unverified data.” He pointed out that the series You only averaged 8 million viewers when its first season aired on Lifetime. Yet Netflix projected 40 million viewers when the second season appeared on the streaming service. “Netflix is not telling you the whole story,” Landgraf warned.
TV critics were quick to call Netflix’s numbers “silly” — or worse. The Hollywood Reporter critic Daniel Fienberg said that the “utterly BS” ratings were “actually worse than no Netflix ratings.”
Becoming More Transparent
Perhaps sensing the growing dissatisfaction, executives on Netflix’s 2019-Q1 investor call promised more transparency. “We’re trying to get to a place where we could be a lot more transparent, both with our producers and with our customers,” Sarandos said.
Netflix Chief Product Officer Gregory Peters followed up by saying the company will begin testing a top-10 list which will “let our members know what are those most popular shows so they can watch and then participate in the public conversation.”
The first of these tests appeared in early May when Netflix UK began tweeting top-10 lists of the most popular movies and TV shows British subscribers watch. The first tweet listed the most popular content in April followed by weekly lists.
|Netflix UK Top-10 April 2019||Netflix UK Top-10 May 21, 2019|
|After Life||Dead to Me|
|Chilling Adventures of Sabrina||Lucifer|
|Star Trek: Discovery||Jane the Virgin|
|Bodyguard||Line of Duty|
|Santa Clarita Diet||The Rain|
Even though the lists don’t include actual numbers, you can draw two interesting observations. First, only two of the April top 10 — Riverdale and Brooklyn Nine-Nine — were still on the list three weeks later. Second, Netflix Originals do not dominate the lists. Six of the April top 10 were Netflix Originals, but only there were only three Netflix Originals on this week’s list. (A fourth, Lucifer, was picked up by Netflix after it spent three seasons on Fox.)
It’s tea-leaf-reading like this that may be the true reason Netflix doesn’t like to share. The narrative Netflix executives like to spin is that Netflix is “a big improvement” over traditional TV. If the industry could ever make an apples-to-apples comparison, then Netflix may look like just any other content producer.