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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.