I had a chat with a politics numbers cruncher yesterday. A big part of the discussion was about what will happen in the mid-terms and the next presidential election. At the core of his arguments was his dismissal of the endless polling data flooding the world these days. His view is that they are polling for the wrong things. In response, I mentioned how frustrated I have been with the parade of polling-based analytics companies currently fighting for a solid position as the ongoing must-have source for details for all of the companies now delivering content in all of these ways.
The first data-centric rabbit hole I went down when I started turning this thought into a newsletter was how people are viewing TV and how it is measured publicly.
In this era of press release industry reporting, no one seems to have an actual handle on what success and failure looks like anymore. So let’s start with the biggest monster of the last few months, Squid Game.
Squid Game premiered on Netflix on September 17, 2021, to modest fanfare. If you look at Rotten Tomatoes, there was only 1 review that ran on the day of release (none before). Fewer than 7000 domestic Netflix households viewed the show in full in its first weekend of availability. (We don’t know… and we won’t know through this whole discussion, how many households sampled the show and stopped watching early… not that first week… not ever. Different discussion, really)
Things picked up quick. The next 7 days in America saw as many as 65,360 Netflix subscriptions view the show. But the tsunami was overseas.
The first 3 days (a partial week), internationally, would have more viewers than any week in the domestic run of the show. At least 7.5 million international subscriber households watched. But the first full week? No fewer than 50 million international subscriber households. The next week? Over 65 million international subscriber households. That was the peak.
That 2nd full week also saw the U.S. peak. 54.3 million hours of Squid game… though broken down to views of the full season, it was “only” 111,959.
But this is what was being written about in the U.S. media… 3.3 billion minutes of Squid Game. Minutes.
Both are obviously signs of success. But the idea of media coverage is to make these things more clear, not less clear.
The hours vs minutes issue and the lack of clarity is one thing. But there is also a very misleading result in how things are reported in terms of domestic and international. If you are looking to understand how the future looks, both the apples and the oranges are incredibly important. But when they are blurred into headline-grabbing stats, the details may be true, but the perspective is a lie.
In the end, there was no week during its run in which Squid Game seems to be have been viewed in full as a series by as many as 115,000 domestic Netflix subscriber households. And there were 6 weeks in which it seems that Squid Game was seen by no fewer than 10 million Netflix subscriber households in the rest of the world.
A tale of 2 worlds. No one can call it anything less than a huge success. The numbers break out different in reality, but the series, according to Netflix’s numbers, has been watched an equivalent of 279 million times in full… via a company with 214 million subscribers.
This says about Netflix what many have said about Netflix. They have the size internationally to have a massive hit worldwide that doesn’t have anything to do with the U.S… and could even be considered a bit disappointing domestically, compared to how it did everywhere else.
Is this the story you got from reading about it in the media?
Let’s try another example.
This last week, Showtime reported, “Dexter: New Blood has become the most-watched series in Showtime’s history, averaging more than 8 million viewers a week across its ten-episode run.”
Showtime seems to have “only” about 27 million subscribers between cable and their OTT offering. So their claim is, based on the limited numbers we have, that 30% of their mostly-domestic total subscription base watched the entirety of D:NB.
You could definitely look at these numbers and say that this season of Dexter: New Blood was as successful for Showtime domestically, as Squid Game was for Netflix domestically. More people in the US and Canada watched Squid Game than Dexter, but Netflix is also about 2.7x bigger than Showtime here.
Yes, all content delivery companies like Showtime want to be as big as Netflix. But they aren’t. Every company operates in its own context. 8 million views of the series sounds kinda small these days. But it isn’t. It is a great success in certain contexts. But it isn’t the kind of success that is what Wall Street is cuffing its pants over.
“HBO said that the Season 2 premiere of Euphoria starring Emmy winner Zendaya drew 2.4 million viewers across all its platforms Sunday night, saying it is the strongest digital premiere performance of any HBO episode on HBO Max since the streaming service’s launch last May.”
Hoo boy! They are celebrating that? Squid Game is still being watched by more people than that every week.
Oh… it’s about HBO Max!
“(The) second-season debut scored more than nine times higher than its Season 1 premiere in digital viewing, which came in June 2019 via HBO Go and HBO Now.”
“HBO did not provide a viewership number for Euphoria‘s linear broadcast last night; for its series premiere, that number was 577,000 viewers and grew to almost 1 million including a replay.”
Wait! Isn’t linear viewing a platform, as in “all platforms?”
The premiere was a great success for HBO Max/HBO because it fit the context they were wanting it to fit.
On one hand, HBO Max wants to celebrate hitting 73.8 million households. They desperately want that to be their story. But the current idea of great success on that platform is getting 5% of subscribers to watch any given show.
The big moment for HBO’s last big hit, Mare of Easttown, was 4 million viewers over Memorial Day weekend for the finale. According to analytics company guesses, nothing has ever reached as much as 10% of the current HBO Max/HBO audience. Not a series. Not a show. And not a movie thrown online on opening day.
And then there is the weirdness of how big HBO’s market once was.. or wasn’t. From the NY Observer; “By 2017, HBO had 54 million domestic subscribers—which included HBO, Cinemax, and digital customers via HBO Now—and 88 million international customers (142 million total).”
Apparently not. What happened to that phantom 70 million subs from 2017? Beats me.
Meanwhile, a sneak peek at the premiere of 1883 drew almost 5 million viewers to the Paramount Network. The Paramount Network! Hasn’t happened for HBO Max yet. But it can. It just takes the right piece of content.
So why is HBO Max still growing if no one is watching in massive numbers? Because it’s HBO.
I’m not as bullish as some, but I don’t see HBO Max as any kind of failure, no matter how much I hated Project Popcorn. It’s about context. People keep their HBO/HBO Max subscriptions because there is enough content that the subscribers like enough to keep paying. It is all the things that Netflix is? No. But still, they stay.
If I were in that mood, I’d tie this all into the future prospects of theatrical… but I will spare you.
The point is, the more we simplify our perceptions of success, arguing for one strategy fitting all or or ideas of success being monochromatic, the more we are fooling ourselves and avoiding hard truths.
I open these analytics pieces and see 7 different companies with 7 different methodologies and 7 different terminologies and I wonder how any of it will ever make real sense.
And then, in terms of subscription-based streaming and pay-tv, I am comforted by realizing that it never really has to make sense. There is one duel-metric in the subscription business that matters. How many subscribers can you create and how many can you keep?
It’s that simple. And it’s that complicated.