When numbers cruncher Alan Wurtzel, NBC Universal’s president of research and media development, claimed to know how many people were tuning into several Netflix original series at the biannual Television Critics Association press tour last Wednesday, the network seemed to be throwing down the gauntlet. After all, if Wurtzel’s numbers are accurate—and “Jessica Jones” (an average of 4.8 million viewers, aged 18-49, from September through December), “Master of None” (3.9 million), and “Narcos” (3.2 million) qualify only as solid, unspectacular hits by broadcast metrics—the bloom would be off the streaming service’s rose.
That the situation is vastly more complicated than this speaks to the medium’s rapid transformation in recent years, evolving into an ecosystem in which the bon mots of network executives (FX’s John Landgraf, “peak TV”; Showtime’s David Nevins, “cord cobblers”) are examined for glimpses of the future. Whether or not Wurtzel is correct, however, new reporting by the New York Times’ John Koblin offers a reminder that Netflix made its own bed when it comes to viewership numbers. As far as the size of the audience for its original series and feature films is concerned, it’s time for the streaming giant to put up or shut up.
As both Landgraf and Fox Television Group’s Gary Newman complain to the Times, Netflix content chief Ted Sarandos’ brash suggestion that “Narcos” would beat HBO’s “Game of Thrones” in the ratings opened the door for his broadcast and cable counterparts to join journalists in asking for hard evidence. Sour grapes? Possibly. Netflix, which not too long ago was best known for mailing DVDs of “Tokyo Story” to your house, is planning to spend $6 billion on 600-plus hours of original programming this year, and Landgraf, Newman, and other bigwigs didn’t get where they are by demurring in the face of their competitors.
But the fact remains that Sarandos wants to have his cake and eat it, too. After “Beasts of No Nation” earned a measly $50,699 in 78 theaters on opening weekend (concurrent with its streaming debut), Sarandos boasted of the film’s three million Netflix viewers in its first week. After Adam Sandler’s “The Ridiculous Six” was battered by some of the most scathing reviews of 2015, Sarandos and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings announced that it was “the most-watched movie in the history of Netflix.”
I suspect it’s this sense that Netflix’s discussions of viewership numbers are all too convenient that irks TV executives. The leaders of Netflix’s competitors, all of whom are in the Nielsen boat, have to take their lumps when a TV series tanks, because it does so on the public stage. (The same goes for studio heads whose films flop at the box office, though their unwillingness to release VOD numbers makes their case against the streaming service somewhat less sympathetic.) Netflix, by contrast, never seems to have lumps or flops at all—which, let’s face it, is exceedingly unlikely given the sheer volume of programming now available to audiences. We’re talking about media here, not magic.
In the end, Wurtzel’s data strikes me as no more convincing in the specifics than Sarandos’ well-timed swagger. For one thing, the 18-49 demo is not an instructive prism through which to view the strength of a subscriber-based business. For another, the methodology by which Symphony Advanced Media arrived at the viewership numbers cited by Wurtzel, from a sample of 15,000 users, remains untested. If Nielsen and the networks are struggling to track the habits of cord-cutters, time-shifters, and binge-watchers after decades in the TV business, treating audio recognition software on viewers’ smart phones as a panacea may be jumping the gun. All the Symphony data shows is that Netflix series’ peak viewership comes soon after they debut and then gradually tapers off, which I could have told you for a lot less money than anyone at Netflix, NBC, or Symphony makes.
The lesson of the recent fight over Netflix viewership, then, is not that Nielsen is dead or Netflix is lying or NBC is taking a stand, but that those of us who cover film and TV will need to be far more cautious in our use of viewership data going forward. (I’m not throwing down a gauntlet of my own, either: I’m culpable in the rush to judgment, too.) Given the relative dearth of reliable data by which to analyze Hollywood’s fast-changing production and distribution landscape, it’s tempting to report that “The Ridiculous Six” is a hit or “Jessica Jones” is not the sensation we thought. But this doesn’t serve readers, much less viewers. It serves the executives and corporations we’re tasked with covering, and that’s exactly what they want.