Not So Chill Over Netflix

PASADENA, Calif. — Netflix was not on the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour schedule, but the streaming service’s name was a subject of conversation at cable and broadcast network sessions during the first two weeks of the biannual confab.

Netflix was on the mind of FX Networks and FX Productions CEO John Landgraf when he spoke on audience measurement during the network’s Feb. 4 executive panel. He took the streaming channel to task for providing inflated viewership numbers that made its programs seem much more popular and more viewed than traditional cable shows. Landgraf specifically pointed to the performance of Lifetime’s drama series You, which premiered on the service in December.

“A few weeks ago Netflix stated, and I quote: ‘We are very pleased with our launch of You three weeks ago. We estimate it will be watched by over 40 million member households in its first four weeks on Netflix,’ ” Landgraf said, according to the TCA transcript and Multichannel News reporting. “Sounds like they have a huge hit on their hands.

“However, if you dig a little deeper, Netflix is not telling you the whole story, because the numbers they issued do not follow the universally understood television metric — the one you and prior generations of reporters have been using for their whole careers — which is average audience,” Landgraf said.

Diving Into the Numbers

Using the average audience metric, Landgraf said, You’s numbers fall from 40 million to 8 million, a much more accurate comparison of the audience. Though it’s hard to directly compare on-demand viewing on Netflix versus mostly linear viewing for network TV shows, at 8 million, Netflix’s You performance would not have finished among the five most-watched broadcast shows of 2018, led by ABC’s The Conners at 21 million viewers. Nor would it have bested HBO’s Game of Thrones, the most-watched cable show of the year, which averaged more than 11 million viewers. It would have compared favorably to a hit show such as AMC’s The Walking Dead, which averaged around 5 million viewers during the first half of its ninth season.

Landgraf said Netflix is not alone in reporting numbers that make streaming shows seem more popular than they are.

“Many Silicon Valley companies have long used various metrics based on video views or video starts, which inflates their perceived usage and is not a remotely accurate representation of a long-form program’s performance,” he said. “As some of them have evolved into long-form video distributors, they have not signed on using television’s well established and fair standard based on an average audience, the methodology that best represents an apples to apples comparison of viewership, not just how many people watched, but how many people watched how often and for how long.”

Gaining New Eyeballs

Executives with The CW had a more positive view of the Netflix effect. During the broadcaster’s Jan. 31 presentation, The CW president Mark Pedowitz said its multiyear streaming deal with Netflix has exposed its shows to new audiences that missed their initial network run.

Pedowitz said he is hopeful Netflix will boost awareness for freshman football-themed series All-American when it hits the streaming service in late March.

“The first Netflix deal helped Supernatural tremendously … we had great luck going into the second season of Jane after it came off Netflix, as well as The Flash, so we’ve experienced this before, before Riverdale,” Pedowitz said, per TCA transcripts. “It doesn’t happen for every show. We’re hopeful it happens [with All-American].”

As for Netflix originals, FX’s Landgraf said the service has some very good shows that are successful from an audience perspective. But Netflix isn’t providing full disclosure when it doesn’t share metrics from shows that don’t perform as well.

“There are decades of historical data to prove that creative and commercial failure in this business is unavoidable and no one is exempt from that reality,” Landgraf said. “When applying our industry’s standard, accepted metrics to all their programming, the list of shows on their platform that would be considered commercial failures is long, and their true batting average would be viewed as unimpressive.”

Jessika Walsten at the TCA Winter Press Tour contributed to this report.

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.