When Netflix released every episode of the first season of its original series House of Cards at the same time, the concept was a complete novelty. The show was built on lessons learned from big data, was binge-watching worthy, and immediately became a hit. But, the splash made by HOC Season One was nothing compared to the pop culture tsunami created by the release of Season Two on Valentines Day 2014. How can we quantify the success of HOC S2, though? How many downloads did Netflix get?
The answer to that question is quite odd in the contemporary world of instant and accessible TV ratings, movie ticket sales, and internet metrics. Bottom line: Netflix won’t tell us. And, if Netflix sticks with its current policies, they may never report those figures.
Other media analysts claim to be able to estimate the viewership, and they say that about 2% of Netflix subscribers (+/- 670k) binge-watched the whole show in the first weekend. But, Netflix has made no comment on those speculations, and it doesn’t look like they will.
In this letter to Netflix shareholders, CEO Reed Hastings and CFO David Wells suggest that the ways that ratings have been calculated in the past just aren’t relevant to them. Internet content is different from programing that is available at particular times or in particular venues, so tracking the numbers associated with the release of new content isn’t meaningful for the Netflix business model. They put it this way:
Imagine if books were always released one chapter per week, and were only briefly available to read at 8pm on Thursday. And then someone flipped a switch, suddenly allowing people to enjoy an entire book, all at their own pace. That is the change we are bringing about. That is the future of television. That is Internet TV.
This paradigm shift for the delivery of media content translates into measuring success according to a much longer arc of viewer history. In the same letter, Hastings and Wells explain it like this:
For linear TV, the fixed number of prime-time slots mean that only shows that hit it big and fast survive, thus requiring an extensive and expensive pilot system to keep on deck potential replacement shows. In contrast, Internet TV is an environment where smaller or quirkier shows can prosper because they can find a big enough audience over time. In baseball terms, linear TV only scores with home runs. We score with home runs too, but also with singles, doubles and triples.
So, House of Cards Season Two may have been a home run for Netflix. But, it needn’t have been for the Netflix folks to have been more than happy to have invested $3m per episode to produce it. And, perhaps House of Cards Season One was a double in the first inning, but it set up a bunch of future runs, and came back to the plate to hit again and again in a game that never ends. Home runs are nice, but you can win games with small ball. (Add Moneyball to your Netflix queue to learn more about that!)
Ultimately, for Netflix, winning means getting new subscribers, and by that metric they’re killing it. Their most recent quarterly report indicated that they now have 29.93 million subscribers, compared to 28.62 million last quarter. Impressively, this number also means that they have overtaken HBO in the subscription business. That’s huge. (As a bonus, the report claims that the Dutch, the newest country in the Netflix union, “seem to like Netflix.”)
And, with a business model like that, what’s the point of keeping score the old fashioned way? According to Netflix, there’s no point at all. Do the Netflix folks know how many viewers downloaded House of Cards? Of course they do. Netflix is so data driven, they probably know how many brunette 46-year-old women in a particular zip code streamed all 13 episodes of House of Cards Season Two in the four day stretch between February 17th and 20th. But, they’re not going to tell us, because it would make us pay attention to all the wrong things.
Netflix is not media business as usual, and they have no intention of opening themselves to being mistaken for it.