Netflix won’t share crucial data, so TV producers are piecing it together themselves

  • Streaming services like Netflix closely guard their viewer numers. Dreamstime

Bloomberg News
Published: 5/10/2020 6:36:53 PM

Lauren Iungerich knows that her Netflix show, On My Block, was one of the most-searched-for on Google in 2018. She knows Netflix included it on a list of its most binge-watched programs that year. She knows how many Twitter followers the actors have, which she considers a sign of the show’s popularity among the young and social media obsessed.

But the one thing Iungerich doesn’t know is how many people watched the coming-of-age comedy, which debuted its third season in March. “I’m not sure what that audience is, but it feels like our show is important,” she said.

In Hollywood, knowledge is power, and creators who deliver high audience ratings on broadcast and cable earn millions. But streaming has upended the old order by allowing companies like Netflix Inc. to rope off the viewer data that empowers writers and producers. In the first quarter, Netflix added nearly 16 million paid subscribers who had nothing but time during the coronavirus pandemic to binge watch Tiger King and Love Is Blind. With the rise of streaming, creators are unable to answer a very basic question: How many people watch their shows?

On Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu, viewer numbers are closely guarded. “They’re so secretive about their metrics,” star comedian Ali Wong, who had two buzzy Netflix specials, told Conan O’Brien on his podcast in March. “To this day I still don’t know how many people watched either of those specials.” Instead, Wong measures their popularity based on the attendance at her live shows. Before the first one, she couldn’t sell out a comedy club and put tickets on Groupon; after the first special premiered, her next show sold out in two minutes.

Nielsen, which for decades guided executives with its ratings estimates, is trying to count viewers on streaming services, but the services have disputed the findings and say that audience size is only one metric they use to decide whether to keep a show alive.

Since last year, Netflix has started sharing some viewership data with producers and creators, such as the number of households that watch two minutes of a movie or one episode of a series and how many watch 90% of a movie or one season of a show in the first seven and 28 days. Hulu, owned by Walt Disney Co., doesn’t share weekly viewership numbers with show creators, but does relay audience trends, like how many subscribers were still watching a show after three episodes or where they dropped off. Inc. didn’t respond to requests for comment.

For some showrunners, the ignorance is bliss. They say they do their best work without the pressure of ratings. For others, knowing how many people are watching is valuable when negotiating. It’s also human nature. Which is why some TV people have developed their own highly unscientific methods for determining if their shows have entered the zeitgeist. Here are a few of their stories:

‘Hey, look, this person in Korea is saying something’

Before releasing No Good Nick last year, Netflix executives told co-creator David Steinberg that he wouldn’t know everything.

“They say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to tell you, and here’s what we’re not going to tell you,’ ” said Steinberg, who partnered on the series about a teenage con artist with Keetgi Kogan.

Netflix wouldn’t give them viewer numbers. To Steinberg, that wouldn’t have mattered: The first season was released all at once, so he couldn’t have changed the script between episodes based on ratings. And what good are numbers if you don’t have a comparison?

Steinberg and Kogan saw Twitter as a proxy for how the show was doing. Steinberg spent almost every day retweeting nice things that people said about the show and resisting the urge to argue with critics.

He deduced that No Good Nick was perhaps popular in Brazil because he saw numerous tweets in Portuguese, which he translated into English.

“It was like, ‘Hey, look, this person in Korea is saying something about the show. That’s a good sign,’ ” he said. “You’re trying to figure out what’s going on based on minuscule pieces of data that are irrelevant.”

The only thing that mattered was whether the show got renewed, but Netflix decided against a second season. Steinberg is grateful that he and Kogan could tell a full story in 20 episodes. But he still doesn’t know why the show was canceled.

“There’s a decision made, and it’s a bit of mystery,” he said. “You’re better off not overthinking it because you can drive yourself crazy.”

‘The goal is to get into America’s head’

On flights, writer-creator Steven Conrad would sometimes look around to see if anyone was watching his Amazon series, Patriot, on a laptop or tablet. The show, about an intelligence officer who goes undercover at a Milwaukee pipe company, began streaming on Amazon in 2015. Conrad had spent most of his career in film, where box-office sales offer a clear measure of popularity, writing screenplays for The Pursuit of Happyness and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

“The goal is to get into America’s head,” Conrad said.

Conrad had to look for clues. He checked the mail to see if Amazon sent out DVD screeners, a sign that executives thought it should be considered for awards, but there were none. Amazon occasionally gave him feedback — a scene needed more action or the pace needed to be faster — but that was about it.

Keeping show creators in the dark about viewership gives streaming services “a massive advantage,” Conrad said.

“They can manipulate the show under the argument it’s what audiences want,” he said. “It’s a way to maintain control.”

TV critics gave Patriot good reviews. But even the headlines suggested the show had flown under the radar.

The Los Angeles Times called it “the best show you’ve probably never heard of.” Amazon executives didn’t share viewer numbers but they dropped hints that Patriot wouldn’t get a third season.

“They intimated that it would be a good idea to have a story that wrapped up a little bit,” Conrad said.

He found out officially that the show was done when his brother, a cast member, texted him an article announcing its cancellation.

‘It’s really hard to fight back and ask for more money’

When Hulu began airing East Los High in 2013, the streaming service was new to original programming and shared some data with co-creator Kathleen Bedoya. But it was less than what she got for shows she made on TV networks like Telemundo.

At those networks, research departments could pull any data she wanted, such as at what point in an episode viewership dipped, when it went back up or how the ratings compared to similar shows.

“You had so much more information,” said Bedoya, whose Hulu show centered around a fictional high school in East Los Angeles. “It was a big change for me to not deal with ratings.”

That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. TV executives are often “hovering over you with ratings and researching every act of your show,” Bedoya said. “It would have been so nerve-wracking if someone said, ‘Well, in act two, women started losing interest.’ ”

Bedoya wanted to know her audience’s age, race and what part of the country they lived in, partly because it would have helped her write for future seasons. Without much data, Bedoya found it harder to press for a larger budget. Her team shot scenes more quickly because they couldn’t afford to stay on location, and they didn’t have the money for the rights to certain songs.

“When you don’t have numbers, it’s really hard to fight back and ask for more money between seasons,” she said.

So Bedoya and her co-creators had to be resourceful. They ran their own social-media accounts, separate from the ones that Hulu controlled. They also held focus groups at high schools in East L.A. before each season.

“We asked what they were watching, what they liked, what issues they were dealing with at school,” Bedoya said.

While the show had tackled topics such as teen pregnancy and reproductive rights in early seasons, feedback from the teens led to storylines on immigration and sexual orientation.

It’s unclear what kind of impact that extra research had on the show’s popularity. Hulu canceled East Los High after four seasons.

‘You can tell a good phone call from a bad phone call’

TV ratings “have a toxic effect on creativity,” said Victor Fresco, whose TV work includes producing Mad About You and Better Off Ted. “Every week you get your numbers, and you live to fight another week, because any week a bad number can pull you off the air.”

In 2017, he created Santa Clarita Diet, a Netflix comedy starring Drew Barrymore as a zombie.

“I loved not getting numbers each week,” said Fresco, whose show ran for three seasons. “I found it liberating.”

Executives held regular calls with him, offering up data like whether the show was popular in certain regions. But he listened closely to the tone of their voices to try to gauge how it was really doing.

“You can tell a good phone call from a bad phone call,” he said. “You can hear their tone, and then you see if you get ordered again.”

He also ran his own experiment, wearing a jacket in L.A. with Santa Clarita Diet on it and hoping someone noticed.

“If people are stopping me on the street and saying, ‘I love that show,’ then you know people are watching,” he said. (People did stop him, Fresco said.)

Creators, he said, need to forget the old path to riches: generating five seasons’ worth of good ratings on broadcast or cable so that the show gets syndicated. Netflix may cancel a show after one season not because it’s unpopular, but because it costs too much or doesn’t generate new subscribers.

‘It’s our most successful drama’

After Frank Spotnitz made the pilot for The Man in the High Castle, which imagines life if Germany and Japan had won WWII, he knew it was popular because it got enough votes from Amazon subscribers to be made into a series. And he noticed the show was getting more comments on Amazon’s website than others. Even though executives didn’t share viewer numbers, Spotnitz saw the company was marketing the show, and he got vague words of encouragement.

“They said, ‘It’s our most successful drama,’ ” he said. “We didn’t know what that meant, but we knew they were happy.”

His only other measure of the show’s popularity was meeting people who saw it.

“That’s a really tough way to assess the impact of the show you’re doing,” he said.

Knowing viewer numbers helped him get a bigger budget when he made The X-Files in the ’90s.

“There are a whole host of business and financial reasons why you want to know how well your show is performing,” he said. “The fact that ratings were growing was hugely important for us in asking for more resources.”

But Spotnitz said the lack of ratings in the streaming world could bring a measure of fairness to the business, where the fate of a show was sometimes determined by events out of anyone’s control. A major news event could divert viewers, or a snowstorm could keep millions of people stuck at home in front of the TV, lifting the ratings.

The Man in the High Castle recently ended after its fourth season.

These days, Spotnitz is working on a series about Leonardo da Vinci. His biggest concern? Whether his show is getting promoted.

“There’s so much TV being made, but it’s very hard to be noticed and stand out in the crowd,” he said. “I’d rather have that than the raw numbers.”

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