Tag Archives: Bloodline

How to be an SVoD audience sleuth

Netflix's Orange is the New Black is undoubtedly a ratings hit
Netflix’s Orange is the New Black is undoubtedly a ratings hit

Some producers and distributors like to sell their shows to SVoD giants Netflix and Amazon because no one gets to see the audience figures aside from the platforms themselves. While this might seem to run counter to standard industry practice when selecting a platform partner, there is a certain logic to it.

Such is the range of entertainment options these days that drama launches on free and pay TV often disappoint when judged purely on the basis on same-day or live+3-day ratings.

A producer might have made the best show in the history of the small screen, but there is still a strong likelihood that the target audience won’t discover it for weeks, months or even a couple of years. In my case, I’m about to watch Penny Dreadful, which debuted in May 2014 and came to an end this June. But I’m still excited.

This delayed reaction would be okay if it weren’t for the fact that influential media outlets will be tempted to report that a show’s launch was ‘modest,’ ‘lukewarm’ or ‘below station average.’ Three or four episodes in, this media scrutiny may actually start to damage the show’s prospects.

Potential audiences might pick up on the show’s modest numbers and decide to give it a miss – reasoning that it isn’t going to survive to season two. And that might have an impact on the channel executives who have the ultimate say over the programme’s future. Sure, they’ll have their own strong opinions about it, but they’re only human.

House of Cards' popularity is evidenced by its renewals
House of Cards’ popularity is evidenced by its renewals on Netflix

In the world of Netflix and Amazon, however, it’s harder to judge whether a show is successful – because neither platform is willing to share its audience data. Without data, there is a lack of certainty over criticising a show. Instead, the industry has to watch and wait for news of a recommission – the SVoD industry’s equivalent of the Papal Conclave’s fabled white smoke.

Of course, not everyone is happy with this lack of SVoD data. Aside from the fact television is a very nosy industry, data from Netflix and Amazon would be a big help to the studios that license their shows to the platforms. It would also provide some guidance to producers about whether their creative instincts are right. As a result, a lot of time and effort goes into finding other ways of assessing the performance of a Netflix or Amazon show.

The first useful measure of whether an SVoD show is any good is the ratings it receives on services like IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes. This may sound a bit like sticking a finger in the air to test the strength of the wind, but it’s proven to be a pretty effective tool.

IMDb, for example, places House of Cards, Orange is the New Black (OITNB), Daredevil, Narcos and Making a Murderer as the top five shows on Netflix. Most TV observers wouldn’t disagree too much with this list, which is, frankly, excellent. And the fact Netflix has recommissioned all of these shows (some more than once) suggests there is a correlation between IMDb scores and the secret ratings data these SVoD shows are generating.

It’s a similar story with Amazon. While its shows don’t tend to get as high scores as Netflix’s on IMDb, there is again a link between high IMDb ratings and recommissions.

The Man in the High Castle has performed strongly for Amazon
The Man in the High Castle has performed strongly for Amazon

Cases in point include Bosch (8.3), Mozart In The Jungle (8.2) and The Man in the High Castle (8.1) – all of which were renewed. By this logic, I’d guess there will be a second season for Sneaky Pete (rated 8.4).

IMDb is perhaps less accurate in the very early stages of a show’s launch, since its ratings can be skewed by early adopters. But it’s interesting to note that the website’s ratings for Baz Lurhmann’s new Netflix series The Get Down seem to echo the view of critics.

The New Yorker, for example, was disparaging in its assessment of the first four episodes but said the show burst into life around episode five. IMDb’s ratings for the first six episodes were 8.5, 8.6, 8.8, 8.8, 9.2, 9.6 respectively – directly correlating with The New Yorker.

Another limitation with tracking IMDb scores is that a low rating doesn’t always means a show will be cancelled. Netflix’s Hemlock Grove, for example, managed only 7.3 on IMDb, which implies modest viewing. However, it survived for three seasons.

Amazon’s Hand of God was a 7.5 – but it still got a new season. The best explanation for this is that the platforms are picking up some kind of algorithmic support for these shows. Maybe they have super-loyal fanbases, which makes them valuable in winning new subscribers or preventing churn. Hand of God stars Ron Perlman, who was previously a key figure in FX’s hit series Sons of Anarchy. That creative connection may be enough to win new customers.

Hand of God was renewed despite not scoring particularly highly on IMDb
Hand of God was renewed despite not scoring particularly highly on IMDb

Of course, I’m just a TV hack working on a shoestring budget. But if I had a TV studio/network’s resources and I wanted to know about an SVoD show, I’d also use social media monitoring to check out the audience. There are plenty of agencies out there that can provide insights into real-time demographic and sentiment data, levels of engagement, brand affiliation and trends and the performance of shared social content.

Alongside all of the above, a good real-world indicator of an SVoD show’s performance is how it does at high-profile awards. At the Emmys, for example, Netflix has had a total of 75 nominations and 14 wins. Its top performers are House of Cards and OITNB, with some acknowledgement for Bloodline, Master of None and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (all of which have been recommissioned). At Amazon, it’s a similar story, with the platform’s most nominated shows (Transparent, The Man in the High Castle and Mozart in the Jungle) all getting renewed.

Of course, the timeframe around awards is slower so this is less useful as a way of predicting early renewal patterns. But it is a good indicator of whether a show is likely to build into a powerful franchise over an extended period of time.

Award nominations and wins tend to get good media coverage, which then drives advocacy. This, in turn, can create a virtuous cycle of increased SVoD subscriber numbers and audiences. Again, it’s no accident that shows winning several awards in season one are still alive and kicking after three or more runs (OITNB is now confirmed for a minimum of seven seasons, having received 12 Emmy nominations for season one).

Netflix Pablo Escobar drama Narcos
Netflix Pablo Escobar drama Narcos

None of the above is especially scientific, so there have also been attempts by audience analysis experts to decipher the mystery of SVoD viewing. At this year’s Consumer 360 conference in Las Vegas, for example, research firm Nielsen revealed some findings about OITNB’s audience numbers.

Its key learning was that OITNB is the big hit that everyone suspected it to be. According to data reported on by The Wall Street Journal, 6.7 million people watched the first episode of season four in the three days following its launch. The second episode then attracted 5.9 million viewers. To put those numbers in context, they would make OITNB one of the most popular shows on US cable TV if it lived within the traditional system. Nielsen can presumably replicate this analysis for any show.

Others to have explored the SVoD universe include San Diego-based Luth Research, which created a panel of Netflix subscribers to monitor their viewing habits. This showed strong engagement with Marvel-produced Daredevil, with 10.7% of subscribers watching at least one episode in its first 11 days on the streaming service. By comparison, House of Cards attracted 6.5% of subs over its first 30 days and Bloodline 2.4%.

Linking back to the earlier part of this column, Daredevil also scores strongly on IMDb – suggesting again a correlation between that scoring system and actual audience data. But think also about Bloodline, which comes without Marvel heritage attached. Luth’s figures show that it had a slower start. Were it a cable show, that might have been cause for some criticism. However, shielded from that kind of exposure, it has been able to grow its IMDb rating from 8 at launch to 9.4 by the end of season two. No real surprise then that the show has been given a third season.

Bloodline
Bloodline has been given a third season

Netflix doesn’t really get involved with all of the debate about its viewing figures. But it does occasionally drop some interesting data about its subscribers’ behaviour. Earlier this year, for example, there was its binge scale blog, which identified the dramas that are consumed most voraciously on the platform.

And before that there was its insight regarding the point in a show when viewers become hooked. This was interesting because it demonstrated that shows often don’t really grab the audience’s attention until episodes four to eight – the equivalent of that point in a novel when you really know it’s good (around page 70?).

Finally, it’s also possible to get a few insights when Netflix’s Ted Sarandos or Amazon’s Roy Price pitch up on the conference circuit. Speaking at this week’s Edinburgh International TV Festival, Price described a winner-takes-all scenario in the TV industry: “In today’s environment, having a show that 90% of people think is pretty fair is not that useful because in an on-demand environment people are probably not going to demand that show.

“The key to standing out in such a busy environment is that the show has to have a voice that people care about, that people love and that is really distinctive. It’s got to be neat, it’s got to be amazing, it’s got to be worth talking about.”

That’s not as precise as ratings data, of course, but it’s worth thinking about.

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Let’s ask the audience

Netflix has just greenlit a fourth season of House of Cards, suggesting a bona fide hit
Netflix has just greenlit a fourth season of House of Cards, suggesting a bona fide hit

Subscription VoD platforms Netflix and Amazon have emerged as two of the most important players in the scripted TV business. But they are notorious for playing their cards close to their chest. While they are happy to make carefully choreographed appearances at TV industry events and provide subscriber information during their quarterly results presentations, they are not easy to interview and refuse to provide data about the audiences their shows attract.

This, of course, is their prerogative – but it does make it difficult to judge how original commissions are doing. How do we know, for example, that Netflix flagship House of Cards is the hit show that we all seem to assume it is? And what evidence is there that Amazon’s critically acclaimed transgender drama Transparent is anything other than a global media village talking point?

Orange is the New Black can be assumed to be doing a good job due to its renewal
Orange is the New Black can be assumed to be doing a good job due to its renewal

In the absence of ratings data, the most obvious measurement of success on SVoD is whether a show gets recommissioned. Viewed from this perspective, House of Cards is clearly doing a good job, because Netflix has just greenlit a fourth season for 2014. We also have to assume that Orange is the New Black and Hemlock Grove are algorithmically acceptable because they both have third seasons coming up. (Orange’s debuts on June 12, and it actually also has a fourth lined up.) By a similar token, Amazon’s decision to recommission both Bosch and Transparent suggests it is also happy with the impact these shows are having on its business.

Using recommissions as a benchmark for ratings success has its limitations however. For a start, it’s possible that the decision to renew these shows is more about creating a positive PR bubble than rewarding strong ratings. If the SVoD platforms can secure positive notices among critics and reviewers for their shows – plus the occasional Emmy or Golden Globe – they can drive new subscriptions without necessarily winning big audiences.

In other words, raw audience size isn’t an issue for the SVoD platforms as long as they feel like they are achieving ROI with their dramas. But it’s more of a concern for traditional broadcasters thinking of acquiring the rights to a show, because they need metrics to work out a show’s appeal to advertisers.

Bosch has fans thanks to the books but its critical welcome was muted
Bosch has fans thanks to the books but its critical welcome was muted

Furthermore, international channel buyers often have to make decisions about whether to acquire a show before the decision to recommission has taken place. So they may find themselves having to acquire a show without any ratings or audience demographic data. In this scenario, they won’t know whether the decision to recommission was for PR purposes or due to a commercial commitment to the producer or distributor of the show, which may only have signed up with the SVoD platforms on the understanding that it would get at least a second/third run.

The TV industry has tried to get round the ratings issues in various away. Variety magazine, for example, recently published some insights from Luth Research, a San Diego-based company that surveyed 2,500 Netflix subscribers to analyse their viewing habits. Although there were some methodological limitations to the research, it showed that Marvel show Daredevil has been the platform’s most popular series of the year so far, with 10.7% of subscribers watching at least one episode in the first 11 days. With Netflix’s US subscriber base currently at around 41 million, this means the show drew around 4.5 million viewers. The same research showed a more modest audience for House of Cards season three (6.5% over the first 30 days) and a pretty lacklustre performance for Bloodline (2.4% over 30 days – around one million).

Research suggests Daredevil has been  Netflix’s most popular series of 2015
Research suggests Daredevil has been Netflix’s most popular series of 2015

Aside from this kind of bespoke research study, the industry is forced to fall back on audience feedback as a gauge for how a show is performing. So if we stick with Daredevil for a moment, Goscoop.tv was quick to spot the fact that the show secured 4.6 out of five stars on Netflix’s audience review chart, higher than House of Cards. Daredevil also scores well on sites such as IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes. IMDb is particularly useful because you get to see a rating (9.1/10) and the number of users who have voted (79,169 at last count). This is important, because high volume hints at high ratings – and also allows us to build a picture of how the mainstream audience has responded to a show. A low volume of reviews will inevitably skew more towards fanboys or haters.

IMDb gets pretty interesting when you start exploring how other dramas stack up against these scores. We can see, for example, that House of Cards has a 9.1 rating from 212,263 users, Orange is the New Black has 8.4 from 129,964 users, Bloodline has 8.4 from 8,833 users, Bosch has 8.4 from 8,745 users, Marco Polo has 8.2 from 21,666 users, Transparent has 8.1 from 7,256 users and Hemlock Grove is trailing the pack with 7.3 from 24,091 users.

This isn’t an ideal way to analyse shows but it does throw up some interesting points. Firstly, it underlines how strong Daredevil is. Not only are its rating high, but it has stimulated high levels of audience engagement in a very short time. With season two already commissioned this is a hit for Netflix and will undoubtedly prove a popular pick up when it moves into distribution.

Hemlock Grove trails in the IMDb ratings and has earned few critical plaudits
Hemlock Grove trails in the IMDb ratings and has earned few critical plaudits

Hemlock Grove’s performance also suggests that the audience’s assessment of a show is broadly in line with the critics, who have not liked the show. Variety’s comment coming into series two was: “While a loyal contingent was inclined to give Hemlock Grove the benefit of the doubt in a ‘so bad it’s good’ way, watching the opening of the second go-round still tips the scales toward so bad — and boring — that it’s just plain bad. Efforts to improve the show, or just make sense out of it, have largely foundered.”

Continuing with this deeply unscientific but mildly entertaining analysis, what happens when we compare the above IMDb ratings with high-profile shows on cable TV (I’ve limited it to cable because these shows are most similar to what is on offer from Netflix and Amazon)? Well, Game of Thrones has a 9.5 rating from 772, 837 users, Breaking Bad has 9.5 from 680,964, The Sopranos has 9.3 from 153,972, Better Call Saul has 9.1 from 69,893, The Walking Dead has 8.7 from 511,536, Mad Men has 8.7 from 121,003, Vikings has 8.6 from 126,260, Wayward Pines has 8.4 from 3,497 and The Returned has 7.3 from 3,473.

If you look at these results through squinty eyes, this isn’t actually a bad reflection of the quality and popularity of these shows (Game of Thrones – notwithstanding recent controversy – and Breaking Bad spectacular, The Returned a disappointment). There’s even a kind of correlation to US platform penetration figures. With cable in 100 million-plus homes and Netflix in 41 million, there’s a proportionality in Breaking Bad and House of Cards user totals.

Transparent was helped by its Golden Globe success
Transparent was helped by its Golden Globe success

There are all kinds of health warnings you could apply to these numbers, connected to the time they’ve been on air, who their core audience is, whether they are the kind of shows that polarise people and whether the shows’ creators have tried to artificially hype positive reviews. But the overall scorecard seems to suggest that Netflix has had two slam dunk hits (Daredevil and House of Cards) and one that is dividing audiences a bit (Orange Is The New Black). If Daredevil keeps up its momentum, then you’d have to say that Netflix’s four-series deal with Marvel is a masterstroke.

Amazon has had a reasonable start with detective series Bosch, though its numbers are probably skewed upwards by pent-up demand from fans of the book series. This ‘jury’s out’ feel would align with The Guardian’s assessment that Bosch is a paint-by-numbers cop show that leaves “no cop-show cliché unturned.” Arguably, Transparent’s 8.1 rating is one of the most interesting scores. In an era obsessed with transgender TV, Transparent is of its time. And it did win a Golden Globe for best comedy. But if we take 8.7 as a benchmark of high quality (see above), a rating of 8.1 suggests the show is polarising audiences to some extent.

The overall assessment has to be that Amazon is yet to get its scripted strategy quite right. So a lot will be riding on upcoming projects like The Man in the High Castle, Mad Dogs and Hand of God. Amazon, of course, is still playing catch-up to Netflix – but at some point it will probably need its own Marvel moment.

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