On the Trail of TV's Elusive Prize: Netflix Ratings

TV_ratings_illustration - H 2016
Illustration by: David Galletly

TV_ratings_illustration - H 2016

Eleven million watched 'Orange Is the New Black'? Uh, maybe. The streamer remains coy even as a cottage industry of measurement firms tackle the next frontier.

"To keep your secret is wisdom; but to expect others to keep it is folly." No, 18th century essayist Samuel Johnson wasn't talking about viewership numbers for streaming services — but he might as well have been.

Three and a half years on from Netflix's first foray into original programming — and content chief Ted Sarandos' simultaneous vow to keep its audience statistics private — a slew of companies are not-so-quietly gaming the system and outing stats from Netflix and its competitors. And while those ratings amount to little more than hearsay at the moment, they might soon find their way onto the negotiating table.

The company that has received the most attention, seemingly out of nowhere, is San Francisco-based Symphony Advanced Media. The 5-year-old data firm prompted an industry conniption in January when some of its Netflix ratings appeared in a press presentation by NBCUniversal research chief Alan Wurtzel. "Once we launched at the start of the fall season, every single Netflix, Amazon and Hulu original that's come out, we've been tracking it," says Symphony president and CEO Charles Buchwalter. "We have an apples-to-apples assessment and a transparent, open service."

How? Symphony's "media insiders" track their viewing habits with an app running in the background of their phones. Each of the 15,000 participants is instructed to keep his or her phone with them while watching TV to pick up audio, which the app uses to identify programs and episodes. Those first publicized numbers, modest and admittedly collected months after premieres for some Netflix series, prompted Sarandos to call them "remarkably inaccurate."

He's yet to chime in on the latest batch, however. Two weeks after the June 17 premiere of Orange Is the New Black's fourth season, Symphony claimed 10.8 million U.S. Netflix subscribers over 18 already had watched all 13 episodes — an enviable number on any platform. And it's small potatoes compared with Symphony's tally for Fuller House: an average 21.5 million adults during the first 35 days on the service. Those numbers rival Nielsen tallies for the biggest hits on broadcast and cable. But at the moment, they're not nearly as impactful.

While accurate and accepted viewership numbers for streaming content would be a godsend for agents and lawyers negotiating talent deals or series renewals — especially if those numbers are good, meaning more leverage for their clients — those polled by THR say they are aware of Symphony's numbers (and others like them) but none has used them in a negotiation. And while many studios are soliciting stats on their streaming shows, and streamers such as Amazon and Hulu are proving more amenable to a dialogue about proprietary data, everyone remains beholden to Netflix's cryptic metrics. "We're hopeful [ratings] will become acknowledged and recognized, so we can start using them, because what goes on behind the green curtain at Netflix is a mystery," says one lawyer who represents talent on several Netflix series. "To negotiate a renewal, a studio is instead given information like, 'It ranks [No. 7] out of our top 10 shows, but in terms of budget, it's second out of 10.' It's still completely unspecific."

Symphony is not the only player in the game. Companies like LUTH Research are using various techniques to gauge viewership. And Nielsen quietly has been measuring certain streaming series and providing numbers to partner studios for more than a year (sources tell THR 35 media owners have signed on to accept the data). The elder statesman of measurement, with a panel of 100,000 individuals to Symphony's 15,000, cited 6.7 million viewers who watched June's Orange premiere episode during the first three days. (That number is roughly half of the one reported by Symphony.) Many suggest it will take wider reporting from a vetted company like Nielsen to make a compelling case for accepting the new streaming ratings data.

Netflix remains mum despite the increased navel-gazing. (It declined to comment for this story.) But with so many different numbers now floating around, most suggest clarity is on the horizon. Until such a time, as one dealmaker puts it, "We are all conducting high-stakes business with blinders on."

This story first appeared in the Aug. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.