Not even those who run Netflix shows know how popular they really are

May 2, 2014
May 2, 2014

Since launching its original series two years ago, Netflix has stubbornly refused to release any ratings information on its shows.

Now, it turns out, not even the people behind the streaming service’s most successful (well, at least we think they’re the most successful) series, like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, have any idea how many people actually watch their programming.

“It’s like, ‘I’m a hit —I think,’” Orange is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan told The Hollywood Reporter. The lack of viewership metrics from Netflix “makes it hard to negotiate later,” she says, referring to the standing industry practice in which the stars and producers of hits shows leverage ratings success for significant raises in a show’s third or fourth season.

She’s not the only one left in the dark: House of Cards star Kevin Spacey and executive producer David Fincher have also not seen any concrete ratings data. “The fewer people [that] know, the better,” chief content officer Ted Sarandos said in November.

Instead, they—along with the rest of us—have to make do with enigmatic scraps of information from Netflix. CEO Reed Hastings said in Oct that Orange is the New Black “enjoys an audience comparable with successful shows on cable and broadcast TV.” Last month, he told shareholders that House of Cards’ second season attracted “a huge audience that would make any cable or broadcast network happy.” Of course, some cable networks would be overjoyed with an audience of just 2 million, while CBS wouldn’t crack a smile unless more than 10 million viewers tuned in.

In November, Sarandos did let slip that “tens of millions” had seen House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, but he did not indicate whether that figure was cumulative for both shows.

Netflix has long maintained that because they are not beholden to advertisers, they have no incentive to release ratings data. (“There’s no benefit to showing we’re beating said network—we don’t need to,” Ted Sarandos said in March.) Yet premium cable channels like HBO and Showtime, which like Netflix do not have advertisers and rely solely on subscriptions for revenue, have done so for years. (And in the process, have revealed that HBO’s stellar ratings for The Sopranos, Game of Thrones and True Detective—all of which cracked 10 million in their heyday—would indeed make even CBS proud.)

Netflix declined Quartz’s request to elaborate on its ratings strategy.

The only concrete information we do know is that Netflix continues to grow at a healthy rate. In the first quarter of 2014, it added 2.25 million paid streaming subscribers in the U.S. (for a total of 35.67 million) and 1.75 million internationally (for an international total of 11.76 million).

And if anyone can figure out how many of those subscribers are actually watching its original shows, please let Jenji Kohan and David Fincher know.

Follow Jason on Twitter @jasonlynch.We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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