We Have Streaming Ratings Now!
Debunking One of the Biggest Myths of the Streaming Wars
Last December, my wife and I attended a Christmas dinner with a bunch of entertainment industry folks. If you live in Los Angeles or Hollywood or the valley, you know the exact type of get together I’m talking about. There were some writers, a post-production producer, first and second ADs, who’d worked their way up from PAs, an intimacy coordinator, people who worked in marketing and development, and so on.
During dinner, a line producer mentioned that her show just got renewed by one of the top five streamers. I made the mistake of wondering, aloud, if the show made the Nielsen ratings. I thought I’d collected data on the show, but I didn’t remember writing much, if anything, about it. (Though I remembered that it wasn’t that popular.)
But then I was told something very surprising:
No one collects ratings data for streamers.
Even weirder, everyone else agreed with this person!
Which put me in a slightly awkward situation. Because, obviously, Nielsen does collect streaming ratings data. (And explaining that data it is what I do for a living now.) But I also keep my identity secret in public and private (How’s that for anonymity?) so I really couldn’t say anything, except try to explain that, yes, Nielsen has been sharing public ratings rata for a while now.
This anecdote, more than anything, confirms why it’s so important for not only Nielsen, but every other “Streaming Analytics Company”—my catch all for all these companies measuring any sort of streaming data—to keep putting their info out there. Even at a dinner party filled with industry professionals—many of whom would professionally benefit from this information—no one knew it existed.
But could you blame them? They’re probably just reading the trades.
Sure, places like Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and Deadline dutifully share the Nielsen ratings each week they come out. But those websites have been spread so thin, and publish so much, you could miss those articles. Worse, I still hear people confidently assert that no one has streaming ratings! I’ve heard the editor-in-chief of a major trade say this not once, but three times on their podcast. Or two different media moguls say the same thing on their podcasts.
And yeah, almost everyone reading this article knows we have ratings—after all, you’re subscribed to my streaming ratings report— but most people in Hollywood, especially below the line workers, don’t have time to follow the trades on Twitter every minute.
(You might be asking yourself, who works in the entertainment industry but doesn’t religiously follow Twitter? The answer: happy people who aren’t too online. Or who actually make movies on set all day.)
Today, I’m going to debunk this notion that there’s no ratings. More importantly, I want this post to evangelize this idea to the rest of Hollywood. We have ratings now and everyone should know it.
In the Before Times (1950s to 2000s) We Had Two Sources of Truth
Life used to be simple. When it came to films, we had box office results. When it came to TV, we had Nielsen ratings. (And when it came to toy sales, we had NPD. When it came to DVDs, we had DEG. And so on.)
The point was, between those two major companies and decades of data, we knew what was successful and what wasn’t.
This provided a common lingua franca for creatives, executives and everyone in entertainment. If you won your time slot repeatedly, your show would get renewed. If your film made $100 million at the box office, you likely had a hit film. Then it got to where $100 million openings were the standard for blockbusters.
The point is we knew what data meant what.
Then Streaming Started. And the Data Disappeared.
There’s a reason that people believe there’s no ratings out there: for a long time, there really was no streaming ratings data.
At least nothing available to the public. Was Netflix’s buzzy new drama a hit? Probably? It’s buzzy! What about this show on Amazon’s Prime Video? Maybe? Or Hulu? (Probably not.) Everyone had to keep guessing because no one had any real information out there.
And we forget how long this went on. Netflix released House of Cards in 2013 (and Lilyhammer before that). Prime Video released Alpha House also in 2013. That’s a long time ago!
When I used to work for a streamer, I saw my streamer benefit from this very lack of knowledge. But I also struggled to put my streamer’s successes and failures in context. Were we beating our peers? Or lagging far behind?
I had no idea!
And the streamers used this to their advantage. When I worked at a major streamer, our PR and development execs deliberately let reporters assume that multiple “buzzy” streaming TV shows were HUGE...but if people knew the actual ratings, they would have been shocked. I can think of at least three shows at my streamer that critics and reporters assumed were popular, which I knew weren’t. Even today, when a show that had its last season start in the pre-ratings era (before March 2021) we can see if it was actually a hit or not. (For example, You is a huge hit, but Russian Doll was not.)
Personally, I started using Google trends data as a proxy for popularity, a trend that’s now common across entertainment journalism. (You’re welcome.) Even Netflix now uses Google trends data in their quarterly earnings reports!
But that wasn’t actual viewership.
The Streaming Ratings Era Begins: March 2020
Unsurprisingly, independent companies stepped into the void. Companies like Samba TV, who used actual viewership on TV sets to gauge viewership. Or web applications who could track interest in shows, like Just Watch, TV Time and Reelgood. And there are even more streaming analytics companies who track ratings who stay anonymous.
And Netflix even felt like giving us some data. In fact, their progression from vague hints—remember when they told us the Summer of Love was watched by 80 million people?—to selective datecdotes—meticulously tracked by yours truly—and now they provide the total hours viewed for forty shows and films each week.
By March of 2020, though, we had an official start of the streaming ratings era. From that point on, Netflix released a weekly top ten list for America. In August, Nielsen started releasing weekly top ten lists with actual viewership numbers. (They provided me data back to March of 2020 as well.)
This was a lot of data. Then the flood gates opened in 2021. Nielsen went up to three top ten lists. Samba TV began releasing quarterly reports and giving out datecdotes on Twitter (and to various news outlets). Netflix began releasing actual hours viewed starting in July of 2021. And TV Time started releasing top ten lists weekly in 2021.
The Best of Data Times
It's often easy to slip into despair in today’s media landscape. There is a lot of bad news and social media amplifies it all.
This applies even to small niches of the web, like folks who care intently about streaming ratings. Because we went for years without any streaming data, folks still believe that we live in that information-less void.
But we don’t! We’re living in the age of “big data” and though a lot of that data lives behind walled gardens, a lot of it is out there in the public, waiting for anyone to go out there and grab it. Which is what I do. And because we have so much, we know more about our customers than at any time in history. Which makes this literally the best time to be a ratings junky.
The best news? This can and will get better. Maybe Samba TV (and other Streaming Analytics Companies) will start releasing weekly top ten lists. Maybe Disney+ (and every other streamer) will provide their numbers like Netflix.
Next week, I'll explain where I fit into this very complicated equation.
I’ll finish with the obvious, self-interested conclusion: if you want ratings data, you need to subscribe to the single best, comprehensive, regular streaming ratings report in the biz: my weekly newsletter.