People in the writing-about-media business have embraced Netflix and written excitedly about its growing subscriber base and the ounces of original programming it has produced. Everything from “House of Cards” to “Orange Is The New Black” to, well, a lot of other stuff. A third season of "Lilyhammer" starts Friday, and each of those episodes is really...about an hour long.
So everybody’s watching Netflix, it’s well-known. Just not well-documented.
Now, The Wall Street Journalreports that Nielsen is about to begin providing viewership data for Netflix and other streaming video entities, which no doubt also have millions of loyal viewers for original series and other movies and television rerun packages they offer.
“Netflix's adamant secrecy about ratings has been a source of debate and deep speculation in Hollywood,” the Hollywood Reporter wrote. “Not only is there a curiosity to know the kind of audiences that's fueling Emmy love and pop-culture affection for shows like ‘Orange Is The New Black’ the lack of viewership data is something that will figure into negotiations with writers and actors as the young stable grows older.” Damn betcha.
A year or so ago, comedian David Steinberg mounted a one-man show, “Might Be Something Big...Might Not,” and unfortunately, the funniest part was that equivocal title. I think he suspected it might be, hence the title. He warned us. And in a circular way like that, I’ve always wondered about the sensation that Netflix claims to be. I don’t doubt it, but I don’t know it. If you are a part owner of a television series selling itself to a subscription service that doesn’t provide numbers, you might really be selling at a fair price -- or as Mr. Steinberg would say, “might not.”
Networks or studios selling library rights will also be able to see if they ought to be: Does my ability to watch every episode of “30 Rock” whenever I want on Netflix hopelessly weaken the over-the-air prospects for syndication success, or hardly at all? Hard to know, and yet at a time when ratings and measurements of all kinds are increasing in number and complexity, the streaming subscription services exist in a bubble of obscurity.
"Clearly the success of the Netflix model, releasing the entire season of ‘House of Cards’ at once, proved one thing: The audience wants the control. They want the freedom,” said Kevin Spacey in an impassioned speech he gave at the Guardian Edinburgh Television Festival in 2013. “If they want to binge as they’ve been doing on ‘House of Cards’ and lots of other shows, we should let them binge. I can’t tell you how many people have stopped me on the street and said, ‘Thank you, you sucked three days out of my life.’ ”
But Spacey could have counted them, if he really wanted to. Which is more information than he could have gotten from Netflix.
We have only some rough guesses. Procera Networks estimated that for the second season of "House of Cards" somewhere from 6%-10% of subscribers watched at least one episode the weekend of its premiere, and possibly 2% finished the entire series. The average number of episodes watched that first weekend was three. Netflix has around 30 million subs, so those first weekend stats are good. But not enormous, and obviously, fairly ambiguous. And they say nothing much about who watched it after that first weekend.
Nielsen’s ratings for Netflix (and Amazon and Hulu) apparently won’t include mobile viewership figures, but they’ll be something. And while it might be that viewership isn’t that awesome, it’s also possible that networks and cable operators will find out that even more millions of its viewers have migrated than they ever imagined. This might be something big, or...well, you know how the rest of that goes.