Nielsen’s attempts to track streaming service viewership data are finally starting to bear public fruit. According to The Wall Street Journal, the measurement firm released a small sample of data points at a recent Las Vegas conference with the consent of its studio clients. If it’s accurate, Orange Is the New Black’s fourth season is competing with the most popular cable shows not named Game of Thrones; hundreds of thousands of people are tuning into Seinfeld reruns on Hulu; and the people who watch Better Call Saul on Netflix are younger than those who watch it on AMC. (It’s worth noting that the figures only represent domestic viewership; Netflix is available in over 190 countries.) It’s not much, but it’s the most reliable look yet at just how many people watch streaming service programming, and it’s only the tip of the iceberg: there’s a great deal more information Nielsen is keeping private for the time being.
"Netflix ratings transparency is inevitable"
It’s another brick tumbling out of the wall Netflix and its competitors have built around their internal numbers. Third-party measurement firms like Nielsen are becoming more aggressive about assessing streaming service viewership with or without Netflix’s help, and the industry’s collective interest in those numbers isn’t going to subside anytime soon. When NBC’s research division took a crack at estimating the ratings of several popular streaming originals in January — estimates Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos dismissed as "really remarkably inaccurate" — Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff offered up three good reasons the real ratings were bound to come into view. And when The Hollywood Reporter covered the Hollywood Radio and TV Society breakfast in April, it emerged with the conclusion that "Netflix ratings transparency is inevitable." Nielsen’s disclosure means that transparency is closer than ever. If that’s really the case, then Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and the like should consider coming out and offering up their viewership data themselves. At the very least, it’d mean beating interested third parties to the punch, and making a proactive turn towards transparency could yield some unexpected benefits.
There are a few standard arguments made in favor of Netflix sustaining secrecy as long as it can manage. (I’m going to use Netflix as a representative service for the remainder of this piece because it’s the most popular, and it’s being subjected to the most pressure.) You can argue that Netflix’s refusal to disclose ratings in any substantive way — even to the people who make its shows — has helped to cultivate a creatively liberated environment rich in weird, distinctive original programming. No one has to pander for clicks; everyone can feel secure making whatever storytelling choices inspire them, and they can take all the time they need to do so. (It’s telling that the service’s biggest hit is a hyperdiverse, hyperfeminine ensemble dramedy with little narrative rigor and several dozen major characters. It’s not exactly CSI.)
Its whole is greater than the sum of its parts
The revelation of show-by-show viewership data shouldn’t have any impact on the safety or quality of Netflix’s original programming. The onus is on the service to assure its creative partners that overall quality is more important than individual performance, and that burden doesn’t shift depending on whether or not its ratings are public or private. Netflix’s whole is greater than the sum of its parts either way. None of its shows — not even Orange Is the New Black — tower over the others, and its fancy documentaries and foreign-language experiments are important pieces of the service’s programming mosaic. Its eclecticism is its greatest strength, and the maintenance of that eclecticism is easy to separate from individual ratings. It doesn’t matter if only 20,000 people watch new episodes of Chef’s Table or Marseille in its first three days streaming if those shows are helping to keep their viewers’ monthly subscription fees rolling in.
The other major argument for secrecy involves licensing, the force driving studios’ push for viewership data in the first place. "The data could provide valuable insights to studios who must periodically negotiate with Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu over licensing fees for their shows," writes Amol Sharma in The Wall Street Journal. "Some media executives have… begun to reconsider whether their approach of recent years — licensing high volumes of content to Netflix and making it available there relatively quickly — still makes sense." If studios have a better idea of just how much Netflix needs their programming, they can drive a harder bargain when negotiating the rights to said programming.
Overestimating the significance of viewership for licensed content ignores the fact that Netflix has already complicated these negotiations by pouring billions and billions of dollars into its original programming. It’s the core of the service’s strength and the key to future growth, and the sheer breadth of Netflix’s plan renders outside content more and more inessential by design. Traditional networks are going to become more hesitant to work with Netflix — and are going to pursue their own network-specific streaming apps — no matter the state of Netflix’s data. Rendering that data public isn’t going to force Netflix to adjust the strategy it’s been pursuing for several years. Its focus is going to remain on developing original content, and if it’s dead-set on licensing a particular bunch of shows and movies, it can back up the money truck and throw the doors open. (It worked for Disney and Marvel, right?)
Suffering from success
All of the hand-wringing over the state of Netflix’s viewership is proof of what a huge entity the service has become, even without hard numbers. When studios and competitors are trying to poke holes in your boasts or gain some extra edge in negotiating, it means you’re commanding their respect. Netflix isn’t the first TV upstart to experience this specific growing pain, either. "Netflix finds itself in a similar position to the one HBO was in back when Sex and the City and The Sopranos launched and then grew huge," writes VanDerWerff over at Vox. "At the time, HBO avoided revealing its viewership totals — just like Netflix does now — and would frequently say that any Nielsen numbers released for it were faulty… Ultimately, HBO just started releasing its numbers, which it does to this day." (And even though HBO remains a Nielsen participant, it's deemphasized immediate ratings in favor of metrics that account for delayed and cross-platform viewing, casting its shows in a kinder light.)
Netflix still has the chance to be proactive regarding its data, and it can even turn its viewership treasure trove into another piece of content. Why not take a slice of easily comprehensible numbers — viewership over time and by country, basically — and make them available for public exploration? Spotify’s already doing it; I can’t begin to imagine the hours I’ve spent flipping through artist play counts, testing out the service’s frequent visualization gimmicks, and poring over my friends’ years in review when they’re unleashed in December. Netflix can easily enable the same kind of nerdy fun, and its strategy is robust enough to weather whatever minor impacts going public would have on negotiation and creative self-esteem. It’s time to open the vault.