Netflix is pursuing a brilliant marketing tactic with its original series: don’t let facts define the message. By refusing to release specifics on viewership, everything meets expectations. There are no flops.
Determining what people want to watch is one of the most difficult ventures around. Networks spend millions of dollars for little return. Failures abound.
And yet at Netflix, every dollar is paying off. It’s batting a thousand. Somehow it has a read on consumer tastes no one else can touch.
A company propelled by consumer data, Netflix releases nothing about the number of streams for a particular show; or hours viewed; or deeper dives indicating how much a single series contributes to a subscriber bump.
So, whether it’s “House of Cards” or “Hemlock Grove” or “Arrested Development,” it’s free to portray them all as hits. Unlike networks beholden to widely available ratings, it can spin with no similar arbiter.
“Wildly successful,” Netflix’s Ted Sarandos told the Guardian about “House of Cards.”
If you say so … because how do we know.
This isn’t to say Netflix is being deceptive. It’s being smart.
If “House of Cards” generates a huge amount of streams, but the next two originals have far fewer, the media could start with the sour stories about a one-hit wonder or lost touch. Investors may get spooked.
With no data, if reviewers love a show and Twitter activity is overwhelmingly positive, Netflix can point to that as evidence of success. If the opposite is the case? Well, that doesn’t mean loads of people aren’t watching.
Sarandos, the top content executive at Netflix, said “we don't talk about it because we don't want to have to talk about the failure of the next show.”
“It has been a mistake for [pay-TV] companies to talk about ratings, it creates performance pressure around these shows which is very unnecessary," he told the Guardian. “HBO got excited about the ratings on [its first big hit] ‘The Sopranos,’ I would have too, but now they have to talk about every one of them. There is as much going around about how few people watch [HBO's] ‘Girls’ as there is about how good a show it is.”
It’s worth considering whether HBO and Showtime should stop making ratings public and simply focus on touting total subscriber numbers. That’s what Netflix does.
There is, of course, another reason Netflix doesn’t want to release data on any particular content. It could hurt its leverage when negotiating to acquire programming. If Warner Bros. or AMC knows it’s struggling to produce originals that drives traffic, they could be emboldened to charge more for their stuff.
Nonetheless, interest in Netflix is so intense that researchers are eager to find ways to gauge its production acumen. Procera Networks released multiple data points Tuesday about how the new season of “Arrested Development” (15 episodes) performed after its release Sunday.
While offering the qualifier that Procera only reviewed selective data, Procera's Cam Cullen wrote the “launch was a success” and had a “noticeable effect” on various traffic metrics.
-Peak Netflix traffic on one unnamed cable operator’s system was up 10% on Sunday versus the previous Sunday.
-“Arrested Development” accounted for 10% of all Netflix usage on one U.S. university network.
-Early returns show “about 10% of viewers made it to episode 15 on Sunday/Monday.”
(Separately, PaidContent reported data indicating piracy was high – at least one hint of popularity, though one Netflix could do without.)
There’s that famous quote: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” With its original content, Netflix is staying away from the latter, allowing it to craft its own truth. Wise.