I wonder if I’m the only person who watches new content on Netflix, Amazon or Hulu and spends half of my time thinking about how the show would be done if it were on conventional television.
I can’t stop doing it, though. I don’t think it’s only because of my job. I think it’s because audiences are genuinely mesmerized by this still pretty-new idea of watching television programs that seem to only be there to push a story, not an ad budget.
You could say HBO did that with “Sopranos” first, and with lots of other HBO features after that, and you’d be correct. But HBO does exist in the television space. Its viewership is measured and reported. HBO says it doesn’t care all that much about ratings, but it never says it doesn’t look at them.
Trusty TV trade reporter Joe Adalian reported, back in 2013, with a chart, that "Sopranos" was HBO’s best-watched original drama ever, with over 14 million viewers per episode. But by the next year, “Game of Thrones” replaced “Sopranos” with 18.4 million viewers. Much has been made of the fact that HBO continues to make “Girls,” though it has a pretty measly audience. That small audience is proof to the masses that HBO is so cool it doesn’t haven’t to be popular.
With Netflix and Amazon we know nothing. Repeatedly, Netflix explains how it just can’t say how many people watch their originals. It could. But it doesn’t. In a very weird, but real way, streaming video--the whole Internet, really--is quite unaccountable. Amazon and Netflix asks viewers what they think. They just never tell you what they’ve been told. Ditto with counting heads, I guess. Or ratings.
“I just feel like the ratings can be a little bit of a distraction,” Amazon Studio’s Roy Price told Adweek.com. “If someone told you that one novel had outsold another novel by 20% percent, would that make you more likely to read it? It wouldn't in my case. . . I don't care that much about that. I guess if you regarded yourself as some sort of super paragon of the mainstream, where mass viewership numbers would always determine your preferences, then that would be super helpful. But I think for most people it's only semi-useful.”
Not caring too much about being popular has a down side. Creative freedom can be just another phrase for, to badly mangle Janis Joplin, no one there to help you make smart choices.
I was excited about Hulu’s new “Difficult People” but...man, who am I supposed to like? They are all asses. They’re so thoroughly unlikable. In the real world, focus groups and fear-of-advertiser-rejection would have killed this series long before it got this far. Score one point for mass marketing.
Fortunately, I guess, Hulu only debuted the first two episodes. You have to come back every Wednesday for more, and I’m not sure many will. That’s the other part of not caring about ratings because you’re a pay service: People can stop paying, which turns out to be a budding problem for SVOD.