TV Long View: 'Cobra Kai,' 'Wonder Woman 1984' and the Search for Streaming Transparency

Cobra Kai Wonder Woman 1984
Netflix; Everett

At the start of the 2020-21 TV season, The Hollywood Reporter made a decision to stop daily reporting on the first set of broadcast ratings released each day. The choice stemmed from the fact that Nielsen's fast nationals, which only measure night-of, in-home viewing of a show, were the least accurate and least complete set of ratings for a given day — to say nothing of the fact that a lot of network shows get half or more of their viewers in the days (and even weeks) after they air.

That same principle explains why THR didn't report on Netflix's projected viewing numbers for Cobra Kai earlier this week — and why, unless current circumstances change, you may never see a hard figure for Wonder Woman 1984 on this site.

The issue for both is one of context and completeness. Netflix's viewing metric counts two minutes of watching a series or movie as a "view," and its standard is to report how many member accounts passed that two-minute threshold for a title within 28 days of its release. When Netflix shared its viewing data, Cobra Kai had been streaming for less than half that time, so the number the company shared was a projection.

Netflix put out a similar 28-day projection for Bridgerton a mere 10 days after its release. In both cases, the streamer gave bits of context — Cobra Kai ranks among the top 10 veteran series launching a new season, Bridgerton is a top five series debut — but no listing of the other shows or their performance, and no hard, "this is how many members tuned in already" number. Without that context, the numbers don't mean as much as they could.

To Netflix's (partial) credit, however, it has at least attached numbers to some of its shows. That's a good deal more than any other streamer can say.

We may never know, for instance, how many people watched Wonder Woman 1984 on HBO Max: In a press release, parent company WarnerMedia said "nearly half" of the service's "retail subscribers" had watched the movie in its opening weekend, and "millions" of subscribers with access to HBO Max via a cable or wireless partner ("wholesale subscribers" in company parlance) had also watched.

Does that mean 2 million, 5 million, 20 million? HBO Max won't say. Nielsen, unfortunately, won't be any help in this matter either. The ratings service has provided some transparency with its weekly top 10 rankings, which measures streaming content by total minutes viewed. But it currently only measures Netflix, Disney+, Hulu and Amazon's Prime Video.

Even the Nielsen list (which streaming platforms say is incomplete, due to measuring TV-set viewing only and just in the United States) hasn't driven anyone to greater transparency. Hulu touted "minutes watched in unscripted series increas[ing] 48%" in 2020 vs. 2019, and April 26 being its biggest day of the year. HBO Max told press that The Flight Attendant's second weekend was up 26 percent from its first; Apple TV+, Peacock and Disney+ reveal … nothing, save for whatever Disney+ title grabs enough eyeballs to make Nielsen's list. The percentage figures have little meaning without any kind of baseline for comparison, and the lack of regular figures from any streamer, a precedent set in the early days of Netflix and Hulu, is now the industry standard.

The streaming business is about getting and keeping subscribers, not gathering a huge audience at a set time that's also going to watch 10 to 15 minutes of commercials an hour. Viewership can, however, make a difference between survival and cancellation for a streaming series, just as it does in traditional TV. But when companies selectively tout only their successes, and use fuzzy numbers to do it, it's harder to take seriously. When there's some extraordinary numbers-based story to be done on a streaming series, THR will report it. But without greater context, one-off highlights for streaming (and traditional) series is more heat than light.