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Analysis TV and Movies

Bird Box got Netflix to spill viewership numbers and now it can't stop

Netflix gets to throw shade at regular media companies and woo big-name talent, all in one move.

Bird Box stars Sandra Bullock and Sarah Paulson look scared as they sit in a car

Bird Box has been Netflix's most successful original movie by its own measurements. 

Netflix

It all started when Bird Box prodded Netflix to finally take off the blindfold. 

Last month, Netflix let it spill that Bird Box, its post-apocalyptic thriller starring Sandra Bullock, had been viewed by more than 45 million accounts in the first week it was available to stream, making it the company's most successful original film yet by that measure. 

It turned out to be the first drop in a flood of viewership stats to come. Alongside its earnings report on Thursday, Netflix updated that Bird Box number and dropped new figures for You, Sex Education, Bodyguard, Élite, Baby and The Protector. 

Why so chatty, Netflix? Once upon a time, all Netflix needed to do to recruit the biggest names in Hollywood was write a giant check. But as more companies like Apple and Amazon pour money into high-end original content, Netflix needs to prove its worth to creators beyond throwing wads of cash at them. 

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That's why we're hearing Netflix brag about about eye-popping audience numbers. It's the company's next maneuver to woo creators, all while throwing shade at the traditional media companies. With its new numbers, Netflix is hinting they can't measure up.

Previously, Netflix was famously tightfisted about how many people watch its stuff. The creator of House of Cards, which was the Netflix show that put its original content efforts on the map, once said the company wouldn't even share viewership metrics with him. Netflix has dribbled out popularity details in the past -- it said that Bright last year was one of its most popular titles in its first month and that Adam Sandler movies have accumulated 500 million hours of viewing -- but few of those disclosures include "here's how many members watched" specifics. 

Now Netflix can't seem hold back. It also confessed numbers or projections about viewership in the first four weeks of release for:

  • Bird Box -- watched by more than 80 million households 
  • You, a stalker thriller series that originally aired on Lifetime in the fall -- estimated to surpass 40 million homes
  • Sex Education, a British teen dramedy show -- estimated to surpass 40 million households
  • Bodyguard, a BBC-World Productions series that has already aired in the UK and won a best actor Golden Globe for drama earlier this month -- 23 million member households
  • Spanish-language teen drama series Élite -- more than 20 million member households 
  • Italian original series Baby -- more than 10 million homes
  • The Protector, Netflix's first Turkish original series --- more than 10 million households

Slow your scroll

Netflix's new numbers are impressive but they all need disclaimers. 

First, a point of constant irritation for traditional Hollywood companies: None of Netflix's viewership stats are independently verified or supported by detailed data from the company. 

bodyguard-iconic-l

Bodyguard, which was first released in the UK by the BBC before coming to Netflix, earned actor Richard Madden a Golden Globe award for best actor in a drama series earlier this month. 

World Productions/Netflix

Traditional media companies have their box office performance independently monitored and are at the mercy of Nielsen ratings as the barometer for their TV shows. But Netflix can release tidbits of data essentially in a vacuum.

That's not to suggest Netflix's self-reported figures are untrue. Netflix would run the risk of shareholder lawsuits if it released inaccurate stats to falsely inflate its reach. But Netflix is in the position to cherrypick highlights that tell the most flattering story about its successes, without much outside data to compare. Traditional media companies don't have it that easy. 

Second, Netflix's viewership statistics aren't apples-to-apples comparisons to... well, to just about anything. It's wildly inaccurate to directly compare the number of member households Netflix says watch one of its TV shows to Nielsen audience numbers. (More on that later.) 

It's not even fair to compare Netflix's own stats for movie viewership to its own stats for TV viewership. Netflix counts a movie view after an account watches 70 percent of the full runtime -- so in the case of Bird Box, nearly an hour and a half of viewing. But for TV shows, an account needs to watch 70 percent of a single episode -- so in the case of an "hour-long" drama stripped of all its commercials, that's only about half an hour of watching. 

It's not just about money

But, squinting at some of these numbers, you can draw some conclusions that stand on solid ground. 

Bird Box reaching 80 million accounts is a big number, however you look at it. One impulse is to multiply it by average ticket prices to ballpark a hypothetical box-office total -- don't. Movies have to clear a much higher hurdle getting somebody out of their house to open their wallet for a cinema ticket. A Netflix subscriber doesn't pay anything extra to sit on their couch or pull out their phone and click play. 

The message to creators doesn't need a box-office analogy. Multiple people watch Netflix programming from a single account, and Netflix has also said that Bird Box has "high repeat viewings" on individual accounts. The message to creators is simply "Make movies with us and they will get seen." Viewership of at least 80 million people doesn't need any analogy to get that point across. 

We've already seen hints that the raw attraction of a big Netflix payday was starting to fray. Netflix competitors like Amazon, as well as traditional studios, have at times bested Netflix in bidding wars because some creators value a traditional movie-theater run. Amazon reportedly snagged The Big Sick for this reason, and the creators of Crazy Rich Asians turned down a big payday from Netflix and instead went to Warner Bros. because they believed their all-Asian-cast film had a better shot at making waves if it were a traditional box-office success. 

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You, a thriller about a stalker played by Penn Badgley, struggled to find its audience on Lifetime, the network where it premiered. 

Netflix

That's partly why Netflix is releasing figures for You, a show that struggled to find its audience on Lifetime. Released on Netflix three weeks ago, the company expects it to surpass an audience of 40 million households globally within the next week. On regular cable TV, You generated fewer than 700,000 rated viewers when it aired in the US starting in September, according to Guggenheim analyst Michael Morris in a note Friday. 

These numbers aren't apples to apples. You's rating on Lifetime is US only; Netflix's is global, for one. More importantly, the rating on regular TV is what's known as "average minute audience." Roughly speaking, this is an approximation of the audience watching a program if you counted them during any random minute of the show. It's a much tougher metric to score a big number than Netflix's.

But even with those caveats, 40 million estimated viewers on Netflix is "dispelling concern that content is difficult to find on the platform," Morris said. 

In other words, the difference between 40 million and 700,000 is one stark enough to see, even through a blindfold. 

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