Spies vs Turtles, FASTs vs Streamers, and Netflix Returning Series vs “Meh”
The Streaming Ratings Report for 20-Oct-2023
(Welcome to my weekly streaming ratings report, the single best guide to what is popular in streaming TV and what isn’t. I’m the Entertainment Strategy Guy, a former streaming executive who now analyzes business strategy in the entertainment industry. If you were forwarded this email, please subscribe to get these insights each week.)
After the SAG-AFTRA news/non-news, perhaps the most interesting entertainment story of the last few days has been The Problem With Jon Stewart “ending” or “not returning” or “not coming back” or “not moving forward” after “creative differences” over potential episodes on AI and China.
In 1990s parlance, Apple TV+ cancelled this show. (Only Deadline wrote that word, though Variety and THR used the word “cancelled” in their article’s URL.) But I get why many journalists and critics, myself included, are loath to say that, being firmly in the Jon Stewart generation of Daily Show fans.
The media coverage of this story is a terrific example of what I wrote about last week in “That’s Not a Hit Show”, an article that really, really resonated with my readers, becoming my second most popular article of all time. Frankly, if a show gets renewed or cancelled, the most important question to ask/answer is, “How many people watched it?” regardless of the stated reason the show got cancelled. Ten years ago, this was so obvious; you’d seem silly if you explained a cancellation without sharing with the ratings.
Today, not one of those industry trade articles mentioned ratings or even tried.
The Problem With Jon Stewart was one of our “Bombs of the Year” not once, not twice, but three times in a row. Samba TV has a datecdote that only 40K people watched episode five in the first season. Its latest clip on YouTube only has 200K views, and it’s never made the Nielsen charts or any ratings chart I track. The conclusion is pretty obvious:
The Problem With Jon Stewart was a bomb. A total flop.
Did this show get “cancelled” or “un-ordered” over creative differences? Probably, but the ratings still matter. For context. Basically, if no one is watching your show, the freedom a mega-corporation will give you is much lower. If Jon Stewart were delivering killer ratings, if he had a buzzy, must-watch show, he could probably do segments on whatever he wanted.
Right now, Apple TV+ is losing money on this show—Jon Stewart’s services don’t come cheap—so do they want PR headaches and international controversy to go along with losing money? Seems unlikely. Again, without the ratings context, these articles seem nonsensical.
And that’s the context that, at this point, only me (and Sonny Bunch) are providing to our readers. That’s why you need the Streaming Ratings Report. If you’re an actor, writer, director, development exec, agent, manager, studio exec, PR rep, union head, and so on, you need this information!
And you need to read people who can actually provide it.
On to the ratings, including a look at The Continental on Peacock and some semi-interesting returning shows on Netflix, (Sex Education and Love is Blind). But the real juice is on the film side; some semi-notable theatrical titles (or should have gone to theaters) titles made the rankings, including a kids movie showdown. All that, plus Nielsen’s The Gauge, Samba TV on streaming reach and “watch-and-cancel” shows, some interesting Pay 1 films coming to Prime Video, and more. And even more Apple Studios/Apple TV+ news!
But first, let's talk FASTs.
(Reminder: The streaming ratings report focuses on the U.S. market and compiles data from Nielsen’s weekly top ten viewership ranks, Showlabs, TV Time trend data, Samba TV household viewership, company datecdotes, and Netflix hours viewed data, Google Trends, and IMDb to determine the most popular content. While most data points are current, Nielsen’s data covers the weeks of September 18th to September 24th.)
A FAST Check-In
I’m on the record as being fairly bullish on FASTs (free, ad-supported television). Compared to “on-demand” streaming, “linear” streaming really does deliver something customers want.
In particular, viewers really, really, really like linear channels.
The trouble is finding data for it. Since FASTs are still so new, we don’t have a lot of streaming ratings. But over the last little bit, I’ve come across a few data looks and surveys on FASTs and thought I’d deliver you a little mini-dive on them.
In the past, I’ve speculated about why FASTs are growing so much, in particular the “value proposition” of offering customers the ability to just find something to watch easily, but I didn’t have a lot of data to make that case. Now we do. According to a new study from Vevo, courtesy of Variety VIP, the big appeal of FAST channels is NOT having to figure out what to watch. People like the “organization” of FAST channels, i.e., they like scrolling!
To me, this just makes intuitive sense. Sometimes, people just like to turn on a TV to “have something on” in the background while they do something else. Or they like the TV to start playing while you’re looking for something to watch. Variety’s write-up focused on “discovery”, but this almost feels like “anti-discovery” to me, or “lean back discovery”.
The biggest gap between what customers want and what streamers don’t deliver is probably news, which can either be something you put on in the background or something that you have to watch when news breaks. This week, Richard Rushfield pointed out that while the world was glued to the news in the Middle East, very few of the streamers were able to satisfy that viewing itch.
Enter the FASTs. According to recent survey from Evan Shapiro—in his excellent Substack—news shows make up 47% of the streaming on FAST services, despite making up 18% of the content.
Here's how Evan Shapiro describes this:
“Viewers are seeking out specific News channels (very likely a well-balanced mix of national and local), repeatedly, every week. These channels have become part of normal viewing routines. For young homeowners who don’t have cable and therefore need to satisfy their mainstream News mix, as well older viewers looking for inexpensive alternatives to Pay TV, and more reliable news than social media. Also, don’t sleep on the utility need of daily local News, weather, sports and traffic (not to mention smiling happy faces of local anchors they trust)”
Again, some of the streamers have invested in linear channels (Peacock, Paramount+ and now Max both have linear news feeds in their apps; Amazon and Paramount own FASTs), but the FASTs may deliver more news options better. (Also, Disney seems to be moving in the exact opposite direction, as they prepare to sell ABC and ESPN.)
Lastly, FASTs won’t be as staid as cable channels of old. In a great article on FASTs, detailing their rise in the US but stagnation abroad, Dan Fahy has a chart showing FASTs ability to reorganize, sharing this image of FAST channel turnover:
This flexibility in channel design really is different than the staid cable bundle of old, and may represent new opportunities for streaming.
I’ve been banging on this drum for a while, but as the streaming wars keep going—the war definitely isn’t over!—the ability for true FASTs to take market share and for the streamers to integrate FAST elements/linear channels will be a key battlefield to watch.
Film - Ninja Turtles vs. Spy Kids: Which Kids Film Won?
News dropped this week that Netflix would take over the Skydance Animation-Apple TV+ output deal.
For those not familiar, Apple TV+ entered into a big output deal with Skydance in 2021 that guaranteed Apple TV+ would release (and fund) multiple films each year costing $125 million and would guarantee at least $25 million in profit per film. (That’s right: Apple TV+ paid an extra $25 million in profit for Ghosted…) Included in that were animated titles, like last year’s Luck. Skydance animation is, as another reminder, the current home of John Lasseter, the former Pixar executive.
Why bring this up in the Streaming Ratings Report? Because this week, Netflix released another kids title that underperformed, which maybe explains why they want to do this Skydance Animation deal.
This latest miss is Spy Kids: Armageddon, from the Spy Kids franchise. Netflix has had some success with Robert Rodriguez-helmed kids films before, as the movie, We Can Be Heroes (a Dec-2021 sequel to The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava Girl) got a Netflix “datecdote” at the time, with a reported 53 million households watching 2 minutes, which was a good number at the time.
Spy Kids: Armageddon will not reach those heights. It only had 3.9 million hours of viewership in its first three days, which is on the low side for Netflix kids films:
That’s not a great debut, obviously. (It’s IMDb is fairly atrocious/low too, at a 4.4 on 2.2K reviews, though I worry less about IMDb for kids titles.) Global data didn’t save it either.
Looking at Netflix’s track record, many of their hits came from outside their studio/production arms, like The Mitchells vs the Machines and Vivo (from Sony) or Minions: The Rise of Gru, Sing 2 or The Bad Guys (from Illumination or Dreamworks Animation via Universal after their theatrical runs).
Netflix is hoping that Lasseter can produce more like the major animation houses than their previous internal efforts. I tend to agree with this strategy, by the way, given Lasseter’s hit rate at Disney and Pixar. (This is no commentary or excuse for his personal actions. Merely a comment on his professional track record.) One irony? Skydance actually helped produce…Spy Kids: Armageddon! But again the “key man” here is Lasseter. This is an (expensive) bet on him, and in light of their kids film performance this year, it makes sense.
And if it still doesn’t work? Then it’s a sign that to truly build anticipation and buzz for kids films…you need a theatrical release.
Now is where I’m going to get a pinch contradictory with the numbers. I just said 3.9 million hours wasn’t great for Spy Kids: Armageddon, but I kinda like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem’s 3.6 million hours on Paramount+. (TMTN: Mutant Mayhem from here on out.) I don’t love it, but I do like it. While it’s IMDb scores aren’t elite (a 7.3 on 45K reviews), it did have an “A” Cinemascore.
Let’s be clear: I like this number, but it’s not like this is a game-changing hit either. Since Paramount+ is significantly smaller than Netflix, getting any film on the charts is a win. Plus, with $172 million in global box office, it’s not like this 3.6 million hours is all TMNT: Mutant Mayhem will earn. (Plus home entertainment revenue!) We’ll also likely see another bump when it hits Prime Video non-exclusively in few months. That said, would I have made its window a slight bit longer to drop in the Thanksgiving/Holiday time frame? I would have. I think these short streaming windows hurt theaters more than they help streamers.