NBC vs. Netflix: Why a Ratings 'Reveal' Matters

Netflix vs NBC Comp - H 2016
Getty Images; AP Images; Courtesy of NBC

Netflix vs NBC Comp - H 2016

Whose viewership data should Hollywood trust? A tech firm's suspicious "outing" lays bare the anger and frustration of networks forced to compete with secrecy.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Veterans of recent TV press tours know to expect an industry kerfuffle or two for restless journalists to report and then forget about weeks later. But the most recent TCA fistfight — NBC research guru Alan Wurtzel's surprise reveal Jan. 13 of what he touted as viewership data for some Netflix shows — isn't going away.

The data, compiled by Palo Alto, Calif.-based tech startup Symphony Advanced Media, reported that Netflix "hits" like Master of None and Jessica Jones were on par with programs perceived as less-than-hits on NBC.

It was an attempt to get under the skin of Netflix content chief Ted Sarandos, who for years has kept viewership numbers private. But it also illustrated in stark terms the key tension in the television business in 2016: How should success be measured, and whose data should the industry trust?

"It's important to know that TV actually is growing very well, and streaming originals … are supplementing it," says Symphony CEO Charlie Buchwalter. The company tracked media consumption for NBC with Shazam-like audio-recognition technology, parsing through data from 15,000 smartphone users who have its app.

But critics quickly doubted the data could be trusted, suggesting the move backfired on NBC. "Given what is remarkably inaccurate data, I hope they didn't spend any money on it," Sarandos quipped, adding, "Why would NBC use their lunch slot to talk about our ratings? Maybe because it's more fun than talking about NBC ratings."

Netflix long has maintained it won't reveal viewer numbers because it isn't beholden to advertisers (except when it benefits Netflix, like when Sarandos said that 3 million people had watched Beasts of No Nation on the service after the movie tanked in theaters). Sarandos tells THR that he was blindsided by NBC, whose studio has received millions of dollars in fees for such shows as 30 Rock. "We have a great relationship with NBC," he says. "We don't think of them as competitors at all."

NBC and other networks likely would disagree, given how their Nielsen ratings have declined as Netflix has grown to 43 million U.S. subscribers. But Sarandos also received support from FX Networks CEO John Landgraf, who, despite being a vocal critic of Netflix's secrecy, said he was suspicious of the NBC numbers.

And among talent, reactions are mixed. Master of None exec producer Mike Schur says he stopped caring about viewership data while working on NBC's low-rated Parks and Recreation. But Netflix's Orange Is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan admits to reading "a lot of secret reports" about ratings, though she acknowledges, "It's a waste of time to speculate."