The (Alleged) Netflix Ratings and Why They're Important

Ever since the invention of broadcast television, the business has run on the same model. Sell advertisements, make money. Higher-rated shows are more sought-after by advertisers, so the network can charge a premium for them, thus getting more revenue. Lower-rated shows won't usually live to see a second season, being replaced by what the network hopes will bring in more money. Eventually, advertisers started paying a premium for viewers between the ages of 18-49. And most all viewing has to happen live, because advertisers are not naive and know that you're skipping their ads if you can. And this is the way it will always be. Right?

Well, maybe not. A little company named Netflix started rivaling Blockbuster by sending customers DVDs in the mail. Eventually, they set up their own website. And then they acquired rights to past seasons of broadcast TV shows as well as many movies. And all the way back in 2013, they started creating original programming. Their library of original programming has grown exponentially, and their business model is completely different from that of traditional television networks. Instead of getting money from advertisers, Netflix instead charges a monthly subscription of $8, $10, or $12, depending on your individual plan. And most importantly, no advertisements. Most shows release their seasons all at once, meaning that you don't have to watch a show and wait another week for the next episode. Thus created the popular "binge watching" craze.

Throughout this whole process Netflix has somehow managed to keep viewing figures private, not only to the public but also to the people making the show. But now, a newer measurement company named Symphony Advanced Media claims that they can accurate measure how many people are watching these shows. Not only for Netflix, but also for competitors such as Hulu and Amazon Prime. Turns out, binge watching and the practice of releasing seasons all at once really leads towards viewership growth over a longer period of time. This means that somebody can here through the grapevine positive reviews of say, Making a Murderer, and subscribe to Netflix a month after its premiere. You can always start a new broadcast TV show a month into its run, but all advertisers care about is that you don't watch the first 3 or 4 episodes live. In fact, you may never watch that show live, making your viewing of that show more or less irrelevant (this is all under the assumption that you are a Nielsen viewer).

I have recreated below the viewership numbers that Symphony Advanced Media claims a few of the streaming-exclusive shows boast in two time periods: one is within two days of release, and the other is within 35 days, both amongst viewers who are at least 18 years of age. And I'll tell you right now that the growth is rather shocking. All viewership numbers in millions, and are averages. Quick tip: clicking and dragging on the bold circles below can help you sort so that you only see shows within a certain range. Clicking on a column will sort the shows accordingly.

Quite a few things are notable about these viewing figures. First off, the boosts in viewership between a 2-day period and a 35-day period are exponentially high. Look at Making a Murderer, which hardly had any viewers upon launch, become so popular. And it does make sense; the hype surrounding this show did grow a lot. Another notable trend is that nine of these shows rate higher than the broadcast TV scripted average, and three of them beat out broadcast TV's #1 scripted show (Empire) in the A18-49 demographic. Once again, if we can trust these numbers. Finally, there clearly is an audience for Marvel shows on Netflix, whereas ABC canceled Agent Carter, didn't pick up Marvel's Most Wanted, and is struggling to keep Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D afloat. Also, The Mindy Project is doing remarkably well given its low-rated run on FOX. Finally, it's clear that these shows in general skew younger than broadcast TV shows, as more of the viewers are in the 18-49 age bracket; not surprising considering the overall younger-skewing nature of streaming.

So clearly, there is an audience for television, it's just now being found in different ways. Which raises the question: what would happen if the broadcast networks adopted Netflix's model? What would happen if instead of channel surfing at 9:05 at night and finding out that Modern Family is on, you could open up the ABC app, which you get by a monthly subscription, and binge the show? It would most likely be way easier for newer shows to gain exposure at any time, and would be a way for viewers to watch their shows completely uninterrupted. However, this would also spell the death of TV advertisement, meaning that big corporations would either have to settle for less exposure or creatively product-place during a show.

While the broadcast networks probably won't fully grasp Netflix's model for a long time, if ever, there could be a lessen to be learned from these numbers. Even if a show premieres to less-than-impressive numbers, making it readily available and promote the show enough and it could truly break out. Not everything can be Making a Murderer, but large growth is still very plausible. With A18-34 ratings for the broadcast TV networks often depressingly low, networks should consider placing even more of an emphasis on monetizing streaming. Already there have been great strides; The CW creates original programming for CW Seed; NBC tried the Acquiarius experiment last summer where they released all episodes online when it premiered; FOX now has an option where viewers can select an interactive ad experience when watching online; and CBS has started subscription service CBS All-Access, where audiences can receive past seasons of current and classic CBS shows, as well as upcoming original programming. ABC is yet to do something like the other networks other than sometimes releasing premieres ahead of their live airings, though one can assume efforts will start soon under new management.

The general trend is while Netflix and other streaming sites see their original programming seeing larger and larger growth over time, broadcast networks are seeing dwindling live audiences. While the live ratings only tell a portion of the ratings story, they still are by and large how these shows are monetized. Sooner or later they will have to adapt in order to stay relevant, but the question is when and how. There are a few different ways as touched upon above, but what do you TV Ratings Guide viewers think? Let us know in the comments below! Or if you wish to remain hidden, you could also vote in our poll:

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