Is Nielsen’s Attempt to Measure Netflix’s Numbers Really a Desperate Last Stand for the Ratings Service?

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The Two N's

Last week, some people made a big deal about Netflix’s viewing numbers, as released by the Nielsen system that has given us TV ratings for decades. The figures suggested that Netflix’s pricey acquisition title The Cloverfield Paradox and its new sci-fi series Altered Carbon didn’t garner the viewership that the streaming service might’ve been hoping for, though Netflix has yet to confirm or deny the reported numbers.

For Cloverfield, roughly five million people tuned in the first week (and almost 800,000 the first night), whereas there were over 11 million people who tuned in to see the Will Smith movie Bright upon its release over the last week of December. Meanwhile, about six million people watched the first episode of Carbon during its first week streaming — a number unfavorably compared to the second season starter of Stranger Things, which got close to 16 million back in October.

This, apparently, gives us some long-awaited insight into the viewing habits of Netflix users, something that has escaped media folks ever since the service came into being. At last, Nielsen has come in to save the day and allow analysts to understand what shows get watched and how.

Up to speed? Good. Now let’s talk about how silly and unreliable all of this really is.

Let’s set aside the fact that Nielsen only measures American numbers, and not global ones, which right away throws any totals into doubt. That’s almost besides the point. Also useless is the comparison between two different projects, especially when one of them is Stranger Things. One of television’s biggest sensations against the adaptation of a series of lesser-known sci-fi novels? Doesn’t seem like a fair fight, does it? Nor does comparing a Will Smith movie that had the benefit of a year-long advertising campaign to a last-minute acquisition that got exactly one Super Bowl advertisement pimping it before its release. God help you if you went to the bathroom during that 30-second window. And let’s not forget that Bright was released on a Friday (prime movie-watching time when the public expects new movies to be released), while Cloverfield hit the interwebs on a Sunday night after the biggest television event of the year. How many people want to watch a two-hour movie after an exhausting five-hour game.

But let’s put all of that aside and really examine why those numbers don’t actually mean a darn thing. Did you know, for instance, that not only does Nielsen only measure U.S. viewers, but also that it only measures actual television viewing? That means anyone watching something on a computer, tablet or phone doesn’t show up, which immediately nullifies any results.

Speaking of nullification, the way we watch television has changed so much, it has all but nullified the relevance of Nielsen itself. Yes, the networks care about ratings, but with an increasing number of their viewers now watching their shows via streaming and VOD — numbers that are rather easy to measure without an outside service because of how downloading and streaming work with a viewer’s format — the value of an actual television set tuning into your show is lessening each week.

Which makes me wonder if these Netflix numbers are, in a sense, an effort by Nielsen to justify its own continued existence. All the way back to 1950, the Nielsen company has tracked TV viewership, and has become synonymous with the medium. But as that medium changes, the company has struggled to keep up, and people are so eager to find out Netflix’s metrics, they will obviously buy into and latch onto pretty much anything they are offered.

On top of that, once those (always round) numbers are out there and the latching has begun, people start to take the numbers out of context. Netflix and its brethren, Amazon and Hulu, among others, don’t need to rely on initial numbers the way that studios or networks do. A movie in theaters has a limited time to draw audiences, just as a network TV show has a shelf life before the next episode hits. Hence the emphasis on three-day and seven-day numbers, only recently added in response to the smaller and smaller amounts of people watching the shows live as they air.

However, a streaming service that drops all of its episodes at once, as Netflix and Amazon do, has less use for such numbers, because they don’t mean a whole lot. The streaming services all know exactly what their viewership numbers are because they can actually see who is watching their product, and so the idea of an outside firm like Nielsen measuring them is probably laughable. I’m not being hyperbolic, either. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Ted Sarandos laughed at that Nielsen announcement, knowing the full truth in a way that a company like Nielsen can’t and never will. Of course, there’s a third party that deserves some of the blame here — the media.

It’s fascinating how my entertainment media colleagues keep talking about these numbers without taking a look underneath the hood. It’s like they are just as desperate to find out what the heck is going on at Netflix that they’ll take anything they can get and not ask any questions about it, which is literally their — not to blindly regurgitate press releases and call it reporting. Why judge these numbers solely on face value, when it’s clear that there are so many other factors in play. Comparing The Cloverfield Paradox to Bright is like apples and oranges to me, but it’s almost as if we’re all in league with Nielsen to keep it afloat, in spite of the fact that its time might have come and gone.

Nielsen has always been a useful service over the years, but beyond that I have no real feeling for or about it one way or another. I’m more interested in the technical aspects of all this — how the industry inevitably changes, and how we all react to that change. Nielsen is trying very hard to find its raison d’être in a brave new world that, quite honestly, might not have a place for it. It’s curious that we’re sort of enabling the company by assigning so much weight to figures that don’t appear to warrant such importance.


Neil Turitz 2 is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent close to two decades working in and writing about Hollywood. Feel free to send him a tweet at @neilturitz. He’ll more than likely respond.

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