“The Office” is the most powerful force in streaming

The face of streaming’s biggest power player.
The face of streaming’s biggest power player.
Image: NBCUniversal
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Netflix and Disney each enjoyed success with new original shows in 2020, from Tiger King to The Mandalorian. But no series was nearly as popular as one that went off the air eight years ago.

The Office was by far the most-watched series across streaming last year, according to a report by Nielsen. The sitcom about a nondescript paper company, which aired on NBC from 2005 to 2013 and was available on Netflix in the US up until a few weeks ago, had more than 57 billion (yes, billion) minutes streamed.

(Note: Nielsen only tracks minutes streamed through TV sets. It’s unclear if or how these rankings would change if the company also logged minutes watched on phones, tablets, and computers. The list only includes shows on Netflix, Disney+, Amazon, and Hulu, so shows like Friends, which appears on HBO Max, aren’t included.)

Most data suggest that new original shows and movies are what entice consumers to sign up for a streaming service, while older, library titles (which are often licensed from other companies) like The Office are what keep users subscribed in between splashy new releases.

The Office could test if popular library titles can also attract subscribers when they change platforms. The show’s US streaming home moved from Netflix to NBCUniversal’s service, Peacock, at the start of 2021. If Peacock reports a sudden uptick in subscribers, it will likely be due to the arrival of The Office—especially because the platform, which launched in July 2020, doesn’t have much original content yet.

Peacock had about 26 million subscribers as of October. It’s counting on the show to not only sustain that number, but also to increase it. The service took the unusual step of marketing its tiers based on how many seasons of The Office they include.

The show’s platform change could also tell us about how much Netflix had to do with its huge resurgence as a streaming title nearly a decade after its TV finale. With almost 200 million subscribers (73 million in the US), Netflix is the most popular streaming service in the world. It should be no surprise that it dominates the list of the most-streamed series, both licensed (above) and original.

While The Office was fairly popular when it aired on NBC (its last season averaged about 4 million viewers per episode), the series soared to new heights on Netflix. And it’s become even more of a cultural staple during the pandemic.

Based on a similarly beloved British comedy of the same name, The Office is the TV equivalent of comfort food: quick and easy to consume, but still satisfying. It appeals to a variety of viewers, including kids who love it as much as—or perhaps more than—adults, despite having never worked in an office setting. And it even sneaks in some addictive soap-opera elements, like Jim and Pam’s relationship, amongst the cringe-inducing antics. Steve Carell’s role as Michael Scott—the inept manager of Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton, Pennsylvania branch—netted the actor six Emmy nominations and is regarded as one of the best comedic performances in recent TV history.

As Peacock waits to see if it gets an Office bump, Netflix will try to figure out how to replace all the minutes its US subscribers spent watching the sitcom. (It will still be on Netflix outside the US.) Perhaps Netflix won’t need to, as users simply find other content to watch on their own. Or perhaps The Office was a singularly popular show with a horde of devoted binge-watchers who will now make Netflix pay the price for losing it to a competitor.