There’s a battle going on to find out what you’re watching on Netflix

Who’s really watching?
Who’s really watching?
Image: MRC Studios
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Netflix claims to have some of the most-watched shows outside of network TV. And while water-cooler talk about House of Cards and Orange is the New Black would suggest that people are actually watching, no one really knows how many actual viewers any Netflix program attracts—except Netflix, and it’s not sharing.

Now, audience-measurement firm ComScore is trying to uncover what viewers are actually watching on the streaming service and others like it. The company recently acquired TV-ratings firm Rentrak and is building a platform that would allow it offer ratings for over-the-top video services like Netflix and Amazon Prime for the first time. The technology, called Total Home Panel, gathers show-level information about viewing on digital devices including TVs, smartphones, tablets, game consoles, and over-the-top devices, augmenting the data ComScore already collects from over 40 million digital set-top boxes, the company said.

“One of the biggest holes that it will fill,” Serge Matta, chief executive of ComScore said, “is the hole of measuring at the title-level i.e., the show-level detail, of Netflix and Amazon Prime. That’s a huge milestone.”

ComScore isn’t the only one digging into digital viewing. Nielsen is also trying to understand who’s watching what on over-the-top services. And NBC recently revealed ratings for Netflix programming, captured by startup Symphony Advanced Media. But Netflix said the numbers were inaccurate.

The company itself has refused to reveal its ratings—even its show creators don’t know who’s watching. Netflix claims it would be bad for business, because users might leave the service if they thought their favorite shows were in danger of being cancelled. Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos has also argued that public viewership numbers lead to lower-quality programming, saying they would “have the same result that it has for television, which has been remarkably negative in terms of the quality of shows.”

Netflix also isn’t reliant on advertisers, like broadcast and cable networks are, so there’s no overwhelming reason for the company to release its ratings.

But that won’t stop the media industry from trying to unearth what people are watching on the platform. TV networks that license their content to different platforms are eager to understand how their shows are performing online, and what that means for their core TV audiences. ”The suppliers of programming are operating in the dark and so any light is useful,” Brian Wieser, senior analyst at Pivotal Research Group, told Quartz.

Wieser is skeptical of how accurate ComScore’s ratings will be, because they’re based on a relatively small sample size. The panel, which will roll out in the fall, currently measures around 4,000 digital devices and ComScore expects to track over 300,000 by the end of the year. That’s a small number when you consider the millions of TV, smartphone tablet, game consoles, and over-the-top devices in the US alone. But even a rough estimate, Wieser said, can go a long way.

“Frankly, just knowing relative metrics is useful,” he acknowledges. “You can start to benchmark pricing and then you’re in a better position to trade off one supplier over another.” From there, programmers can estimate the value of their content and make more informed decisions about to keep the content for themselves or license it to ad-free and ad-supported channels. 

And for media companies like CBS, Disney, and Time Warner, which are experimenting with their own standalone streaming platforms, a peek at Netflix and Amazon’s ratings could offer a better sense of the potential of over-the-top services.