TV Long View: Streaming Future Suffers From Lack of Transparency

Viewership information on digital platforms is hard to come by, and largely controlled by the companies with a vested interest in how many people watch.
Colleen Hayes/NBC
NBC gathers audience information about 'The Good Place' from 14 digital platforms.

Several of the big media companies that own broadcast networks spent ample time at last week's upfronts touting their digital and streaming strategies. And with good reason: As viewing habits change, the primetime schedule is just one of a multitude of data points by which to measure the success of a show and how well it delivers eyeballs to the advertisers who are ponying up billions of dollars to showcase their products.

How many points? A lot. NBC's head of research, Jeff Bader, told reporters that for a show like The Good Place, his team gathers viewing data not just from Nielsen ratings, but also from a dizzying 14 different digital platforms: NBC.com, Hulu, the NBC app for both iOS and Android, Kindle Fire, AppleTV, AndroidTV, Chromecast, Roku, Vizio, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Samsung and Amazon FireTV.

Those are all the places where a viewer can access a given episode of The Good Place within a day or two of its on-air debut — and doesn't include things like Netflix, which streams full seasons a few months after their network runs.

Those digital options allowed the Mike Schur-created comedy to more than double its adults 18-49 rating from the seven-day Nielsen numbers: The Good Place grew from a 1.6 rating in the key ad-sales demographic after seven days to 3.65 with four additional weeks of delayed viewing and streaming, according to NBC.

That's an impressive build, but the key words in that sentence may be "according to NBC." Like its fellow broadcast networks, and HBO and Showtime and Netflix and Hulu and Amazon, NBC doesn't regularly release audience figures for streaming or other digital viewing. There will be the occasional bit of information: the Good Place data above comes from NBC's press release announcing the show's renewal. Fox noted in its season-end roundup that 911 and The Masked Singer both averaged more than 15 million multiplatform viewers, and of course HBO has touted its series-record numbers for Game of Thrones' final episodes, including streaming.

But unlike Nielsen ratings, which are out there for anyone to see every day, networks' and streamers' release of digital data tends to happen when they want to bolster a point. (See also the handful of worldwide sampling figures Netflix has included in its last two quarterly earnings reports.)

As the linear ratings for a show become less and less of its total, what does that mean for advertisers, for viewers and for the people who make shows? Networks can (and do) share more detailed data with advertisers about how their spots are connecting, but again, those data sets are, to borrow a horror cliché, coming from inside the house.

Nielsen is hardly a perfect system, but one advantage it does have is that it doesn't have any vested interest in whether the programs it measures are successful.

For audiences, the lack of transparency in digital viewing could lead to more situations like the cancellation of One Day at a Time with Netflix. A lack of public information about how many people had watched the show helped fuel confusion and outrage about why the streamer dropped the show — especially after Netflix lamented on social media about how sad the decision was.

With Disney+ launching in November and services from WarnerMedia and Comcast on the horizon, there will be even more places for people to watch TV, and likely proportionally less information about just how many people are actually watching. Viewers will still vote with their remotes, but the totals will largely be obscured from view.