(*)–Subject To The Limitations Of Whatever Methodology’s Employed

I am often forced to chortle at some of the degree of consternation that many current media pundits eschew when they lament and chastise the degree of what they see as data manipulation by various streaming services in their attempts to make it seem like their platforms are having more success and impact than they are.  Recently, THE TOWN’s Matthew Belloni conducted a telling and insightful conversation on his Spotify podcast with Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw, a frequent guest, where they justifiably took Netflix’ Chief Content Officer Bela Bajaria to task for taking a victory lap when she offered at a recent industry conference that she deserved praise for data transparency, particularly at a time when writers (and, short of a miracle, soon actors) are demanding more complete information to be better informed as to exactly how much they are being shortchanged by these platforms for the actual popularity of their work.

To be sure, for a little more than a year Netflix has provided via its website a weekly set of Top 10 rankings, both for the most recent week and over a period of time, both globally and territory-specific, that is based on its massive subscriber database, reportedly 58 million U.S.  and 230 million global households.  Unlike Nielsen, Netflix’ data includes all devices, not just connected screens, and is providing such data in a timely manner, unlike the ridiculous holdback of several weeks that Nielsen insists is necessary to provide what they contend is a more accurate lens into cumulative viewership, not merely the immediate impact of a recent drop.  Netflix has provided the ability to at least something on both counts.

Well, yesterday, as if on cue from Belloni’s throwdown, Netflix’s latest data dump included a number of game-changing alterations that trade publications touted, including THE WRAP’s Kayla Cobb’s terse report:

Netflix has changed how it measures its top shows and movies. Using these new metrics, the Jenna Ortega-hit “Wednesday” has overtaken “Stranger Things 4” for the first time when it comes viewership. “Squid Game” still ranks No. 1 across all English and non-English shows and movies with 265.2 million views.

But at the same time, Netflix also announced they were changing the window for how long they would choose to include any viewership regardless of whether it’s qualified as a view or not.  And as Cobb explains, that means a new champion has been crowned:
Additionally, the company will change how it measures its most popular lists. Before, the lists monitored titles over their first 28 days. Now that will be expanded to 91 days.  Using these new metrics, “Wednesday” outpaced “Stranger Things 4” for the first time on the English TV list, with 252.1 million views versus 140.7 million views. That was then followed by “Dahmer: Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” (115.6 million views), “Bridgerton” Season 1 (113.3 million views) and “The Queen’s Gambit” (112.8 million views).
So now a new outside supplier can lay claim to something that means it’s number one with a bullet.  Congratulations, Netflix.  You’re starting to catch up to the games myself and many other data manipuators of an earlier era already mastered, and with a lot less compelling content.
In the late 1980s, dozens of syndicated sitcoms competed for time slots and back-end viability among numerous aggressive studios and distributors.  We’d use whatever angle we could to somehow make our shows seem more successful than fine print would allow.  We’d quietly intermix competing ratings services and secondary ratings measurement periods to make our ads more inclusive.  We’d play with font sizes in our qualifiers to make the necessary asterisks as unobtrusive as possible.  I distinctly recall one particularly competitive year where I was able to somehow make the god-awful syndicated revival of 9 TO 5 number one in some multi-market mash-up based on a limited number of markets, concurrent with ads that proclaimed competitors number one in national rating and/or momentum over a somewhat similar period.  And we’d all be able to get away with almost anything by adding an umbrella disclaimer.
Mine became a punch line among my peers: “Subject to the limitations of the methodologies employed”.  In other words, caveat emptor.  Buyer beware.
But as for as much as a step in the right direction as Netflix might like us to believe they took, I still wonder why they are arbitrarily stopping at 91 days.  Yes, there’s ample evidence that long-tail viewing occurs on deeply populated streaming platforms.  Every time data has become available that can reflect it, the industry has taken advantage of that to make numbers bigger.  When Nielsen began releasing time-shift data as DVRs became more prevalent, “live-plus” data became the barometer that advertisers began to accept.  Today networks all but disavow any overnight ratings data as irrelevant, increasingly moving to what is now a default of “live plus seven days” as a minimum.   Some networks revisit season premieres after a month, touting “live-plus-30s”.  When NBC slotted in a premiere episode of SUPERSTORE just after Thanksgiving of 2015 ahead of a much later-scheduled season, one that was initially optimally scheduled behind a high-rated episode of THE VOICE and in effect served as a barker over time, at the following spring’s upfront its veteran research czar Alan Wurtzel touted “live plus 119 days” data to demonstrate how great the network’s sitcom strategy was.  Alan was very much a presence during our era of truth-stretching; so for as dismissive as one can be as to the relevance of any four month long tail viewership might be to anyone other than the producers of SUPERSTORE. he nor his network were incorrect.
So why wouldn’t Netflix allow for at least as long a tail as NBC did seven long years ago?   As we are potentially headed into a nuclear winter where little new scripted content will eventually become available, it’s entirely possible that subscribers will discover content months, or even years, after they are dropped.  When new seasons of streaming series are dropped, we frequently see “echo effect” viewership to prior seasons, regardless of how great a gap there may be berween them.  Earlier this spring, Netflix finally dropped a new season of its popular BLACK MIRROR anthology series for the first time since 2019.  I strongly suspect there has been additional viewership of some of those earlier seasons.  Does that not count toward creatives’ arguments that there is value over time that they should be compensated for?
But as Otterson reminded, that cumulative viewership may not even necessarily be reflective of anything more than mere catch-up., or , indeed, mere drive-by viewing:
For example, Season 1 of “Wednesday” has an estimated 252.1 million views based on 1.718 billion hours viewed in the first 61 days of availability divided by its 6 hour, 49 minute runtime. This does not mean that 252 million people finished the series, however, nor does it account for anyone who rewatched within the viewing window. It was reported earlier this year that Netflix has a subscriber base of 232.5 million.
And what hasn’t been addressed at all in this latest rejiggering is exactly why Netflix is being challenged for more transparent and inclusive data.  Advertisers demand it.  They only care about who watches their spot, not who watches the content it is contained in.  That was the primary motivator for the creation of Nielsen data streams in the first place.  Netflix still is not releasing exactly how many of those views, regardless of how or for how long a period of time they are calculated, are capable of watching ads.  By many more astute observers’ calculations, individual episodes of shows may only equate to tens of thousands. not millions. of viewers or views.   So from this view TRANSPARENT is the name of an award-winning competitor of Netflix’s portfolio, not necessarily an accurate definition of any data release strategy they have employed, even with the steps in the right direction they took this week.
But I will say this much:  they are providing more data than Amazon Prime ever has on their show.   So Bela, at least take a bow, if not a victory lap, for that.   My degree of acknowledgement will continue to be subject to the limitations of the methodologies employed.  Some things haven’t changed.
Until next time…


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