Netflix has been pretty secretive about viewership numbers of their properties for the longest time. We would only get glimpses of subscriber count and numbers for a select few titles during the quarterly Netflix Conference calls. But with the market’s perceived ‘threat’ of Disney+ and various other on-demand video streaming services making inroads into this space looming, Netflix’s Q4 2019 earnings report conference call gave us a few insights into the inner workings of the world’s No.1 video-streaming service.
The conference call was all praises for “The Witcher”, Netflix’s latest fantasy show. The Q4 letter told shareholders that the Henry Cavill-led show was watched by 76 million subscribers, making it the most-watched debut season of a show in the streaming service’s history. This announcement came on the heels of Netflix’s claim that the stalker-drama “YOU” is on track to be watched by 40 million subscribers and a staggering 83 million households that are said to have watched the Micheal Bay’s Netflix original movie, 6 Underground.
Those are some excellent numbers but it still feels like there’s some complaining incoming, right? Well, here it comes.
The Q4 report revealed that earlier, Netflix used to count views based on households viewing 70% of an entire movie or an episode of a series. This made sense as there are titles of various lengths on Netflix’s US catalog (Special: Chapter One at 14 minutes — Jodha Akbar at 214 minutes). But that has changed as views are now counted as accounts that “choose to watch a given title”.
The main takeaway from the above excerpt is that the new metric to measure views is 2 minutes of view-time. If a subscriber ‘willingly’ plays any title for 2 whole minutes, that’s a view. Netflix states that this new methodology is very similar to the “counting requests” way of BBC’s iPlayer. This levels the playing field for all kinds of content on the streaming service, especially the interactive kind like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, where the runtime depends on the viewer’s choices. And this is what has helped Netflix boost viewership numbers for a lot of its titles. While it might make sense from a business point-of-view, it makes little sense realistically to generalize a metric to such a small duration.
How are Netflix view counts tallied?
Let me give you some examples based on the Q4 report. 76 million households chose to watch Netflix’s “The Witcher”. If I watch just the first scene of the first episode of the series (which is roughly 2 minutes and 15 seconds long), its counted as a view. If you choose to watch every episode of the first season in one go, +1 for the Netflix view count.
Similarly, if you watch the very first scene of the movie “6 Underground” and stop playing it just before the opening credits, that’s a view. If all 83 million households that Netflix claims have watched the movie do the same, it still counts as 83 million views toward the action movie.
To give you a better sense of what this new metric means, here’s an infographic visualizing what 2 minutes of view time means in reference to the percentage (%) of some of the longest and most popular movies, shows, and titles on Netflix’s US catalog right now. Check this out:
The penultimate entry on the infographic, The Irishman, has been one of Netflix’s most ambitious projects with a legendary cast, director, and runtime. As per the new Netflix view count metric, watching less than 1% of the movie counts as a view. Now there’s an argument to be made that watching movies at the cinema is a similar metric. You buy a ticket and take a seat. Irrespective of sitting through the whole film or just a couple minutes, that counts as a viewing. You chose to do that. Just like Netflix’s claim about their new method. But it doesn’t feel right that regardless of whether you watch a title with intent or just start something and skip in minutes, it’s all the same.
Not to mention the other criteria Netflix has. Irrespective of the number of times you view a single title or the people you share an account with on a different IP, it’s counts as One View. This was especially disappointing to learn as the dozens of The Office reruns I’ve notched under my Netflix account all counts as just one view.
Nevertheless, there’s a bright side to this unusual change. Implementing this metric immediately boosted numbers. The brilliant “Our Planet” saw viewer numbers jump a solid 12 million from 33 million views to 45 million. Netflix stock prices rose soon after the report came out. The Q4 report addressed the “Disney+ threat” by posting a Google Trends result showing the buzz around Disney+ breakout stars from the show Star Wars: The Mandalorian including the namesake and adorably named “Baby Yoda” compared to “The Witcher”.
The Witcher’s blowing the competition out of the water here. And these aren’t based on the “controversial” Netflix view count we’ve been talking about all this time. This is a genuine domestic interest over the past few months. Maybe Netflix can just get away with this new measuring method. It’s not like ratings come out for their shows and properties every week letting networks know how popular or lackluster an episode was. The days of linear ratings are all but gone now. It’s all about taking what’s given to us each quarter by these video-streaming services. As long as we get regular and quality content, I’ll try not to complain. If they’re telling me that 83 million people “saw” the movie 6 Underground, then I guess I’ll just have to “believe” them.
And here I thought we were the only ones able to get away with using a metric to show bigger numbers…