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Netflix Claims ‘When They See Us’ Is Its Most-Watched Series … Just in Time for Emmy Voting

The timing and lack of verifiable numbers draw more questions than answers after the streaming company's most recent viewership claim.

When They See Us Netflix Asante Blackk

Asante Blackk in ‘When They See Us”

Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

Netflix wants you to know “When They See Us” is a hit. Wednesday afternoon, the streaming service posted the following to its U.S. Twitter account:

To be clear as we can, Netflix is saying that Ava DuVernay’s four-part limited series about the falsely accused boys who made up the Central Park Five has been the most watched series on Netflix for the last 13 days. We don’t know exactly what “most” means, or even “watched” (how much of it? how long?). In stating that it’s “the most-watched series on Netflix,” the implication is it’s even more popular than Netflix reruns of “Friends” and “The Office,” which would be extraordinary. But it doesn’t exactly claim that.

IndieWire has reached out for comment, although history suggests Netflix won’t supply much transparency on this topic. Company practice is not to release viewership statistics, unless it really wants to, and there’s no possibility of third-party verification. In December 2018, the company released internal data on “Birdbox” viewership, followed by more viewership claims regarding, “You,” “Sex Education,” “Triple Frontier,” “The Highwaymen,” and more. Those announcements were met with dubious reactions from journalists because there is simply no way to verify the numbers are true.

“When They See Us” has plenty of bragging rights: It’s seen near-universal acclaim and sparked real-world ramifications. Its impact has been felt in the critical community as well as the news cycle. However, this announcement could have a unique capacity to elevate the series’ stature even further when it comes to the Emmy race.

Popularity, even perceived popularity, is often crucial to Emmy campaigns. Whether high ratings add pressure to voters who haven’t yet watched or they help keep the series in conversations (and on prediction pages), being seen is increasingly a key step to success in the “Too Much TV” era. New series face even tougher challenges as they ask voters to invest their time in yet another show.

Even without verification, the Netflix announcement of “When They See Us” viewership could be a boon for its Emmy campaign. The streaming giant has yet to win one of the major categories — Best Drama Series, Best Comedy Series, or Best Limited Series — and the limited series race is wide open. Older shows are fading from consciousness, more recently released programs haven’t made as much of a dent, and there’s no dominant leader. “When They See Us” could move into that slot with the right campaign, and the big viewership numbers — real and/or perceived — could give them an advantage.

In February, FX chief John Landgraf laid out why unsubstantiated figures shouldn’t be accepted at face value from any company. He pushed for an “apples-to-apples” comparison, where Netflix’s statistics were not only verified by a third party, but also used the industry viewership standard instead of proprietary metrics. He said it was important to keep in mind not just how many people watch, but “how often and how long” they watch, too.

“When They See Us” was released May 31, the last day of Emmy eligibility. Now — 13 days later, two days after voting opened — Netflix claims that it’s most-watched series for that period. Suspicious? Who knows. Pass the salt.

Additional reporting by Tyler Hersko.

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