'The Witcher' Breaks Netflix Series Viewership Records — With One Big Catch

The Witcher, despite its divisive reviews, is a hit for Netflix — but its numbers can't really be compared to past releases of data from the company thanks to a change in the way the streaming giant measures viewership. 

Netflix, in announcing its fourth-quarter earnings, revealed viewership for recent TV launches The Witcher as well as new seasons of the hits The Crown and Lifetime rescue You. But it was Henry Cavill-led The Witcher that broke TV viewership records. The streamer on Tuesday said The Witcher is tracking to be its biggest season one TV series launch ever. Through four weeks of release, 76 million member households watched the fantasy drama. (The series was renewed for a second season ahead of its debut.)

Netflix, however, has changed the way it reports a "view." Previously, the company counted a view as a member account watching at least 70 percent of one episode of a series or 70 percent of a feature film. Now, it is touting that viewers "chose to watch" a given title, meaning that member watched for as little as two minutes — "long enough to indicate the choice was intentional," per a footnote in the earnings report. Under that measurement, the streamer says The Witcher is on track to have the biggest first season ever for a Netflix original. 

The new metric is now more akin to views on a YouTube video, which indicate in most cases only a small portion of a given piece of content's running time, and are even farther away from the average audience measure for traditional TV. 

"Our new methodology is similar to the BBC iPlayer in their rankings based on 'requests' for the title, 'most popular' articles on The New York Times, which include those who opened the articles, and YouTube view counts," the company notes in its earnings report. "This way, short and long titles are treated equally, leveling the playing field for all types of our content including interactive content, which has no fixed length."

Netflix also says the new metric results in viewer counts about 35 percent higher than the old one. 

Meanwhile, the second season of the Greg Berlanti-produced stalker drama You has been seen by 54 million member households during its first four weeks of release, under the new metric. And the third season of the royal drama The Crown — its first with its new cast — was seen by more than 21 million households (up 40 percent from season two). Over the three-year life of the series to date, the company says more than 73 million accounts worldwide have tuned in.

On the feature side, the Michael Bay feature 6 Underground starring Ryan Reynolds has been seen by 83 million member households during its first four weeks of release.

In the third quarter of 2019, Stranger Things set a viewing record for a Netflix series with 64 million member accounts — 40 percent of the streamer's worldwide total of 158 million at that time — watching at least a portion of the show's third season under the old rubric.

Among Netflix's high-profile releases in the final months of 2019 were Ryan Murphy's The Politician — his first series for the streamer, albeit one produced at 20th Century Fox TV before he signed a nine-figure deal with Netflix — season three of The Crown, The Witcher, Living With Yourself, part one of the final season of BoJack Horseman and season two of You, along with best picture Oscar nominees The Irishman and Marriage Story. None of those had viewership figures mentioned in the earnings report.

Nielsen said Martin Scorsese's The Irishman drew 13.16 million U.S. viewers over its first five days of release, with 17.1 million watching at least part of the three-hour-and-30-minute film. Netflix contends Nielsen figures are incomplete as they don't measure viewing on other devices or in other countries.