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Netflix: 'Mind-boggling' 142 million accounts have tuned in to Squid Game

Two out of every three Netflix subscribers around the world have watched the show for at least two minutes, the company says.

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Angela Lang/CNET

Netflix has been saying for weeks that Squid Game would be its biggest original yet. On Tuesday, it released an internal tally: A "mind-boggling" 142 million accounts* have already checked out the dark survival-competition series out of South Korea, Netflix said. 

For context, that means two out of every three Netflix subscribers globally have "sampled" the show, meaning they've watched Squid Game for at least two minutes during its first month. Squid Game is Netflix's most popular original ever, by a long shot: No other series or movie has crossed the 100 million account mark within the first four weeks of release. And even though Netflix rattled off a handful of other viewership stats for releases over the past three months, even the most popular of them had half the audience of Squid Game.  

In a new batch of viewership figures released Tuesday as part of its latest earnings report, Netflix also said the first half of Money Heist's final season and the third season of Sex Education were two of the service's biggest returning shows lately, and recent movies Sweet Girl, Kissing Booth 3, Vivo and German-language Blood Red Sky were big too. (Complete viewership figures are in the rankings below.)

For years, Netflix was notoriously tight-lipped about its viewership. Beau Willimon -- creator of House of Cards, which put Netflix's original programming on the map -- once said the company wouldn't even share viewership metrics with him. 

But within the last two years, Netflix has grown much chattier about the popularity of its shows and movies to help it recruit talent and stoke buzz. 

Netflix added a top-trending ranking to its service, so people can see the most popular titles streaming on Netflix in their country on any given day. And it started releasing global viewership stats for specific titles regularly. These trickled-out disclosures have resulted in a growing list of its most "popular" shows and movies. 

*There's a catch (actually, lots of them)

Netflix's popularity figures always need disclaimers. Its audience stats have long exasperated parts of the TV industry for being unverified, unsupported and disclosed without much accountability. 

The most frequent yardstick Netflix uses to measure audience is a total number of accounts that watched a show or movie for at least two minutes during the first 28 days of release. The two-minute threshold means some titles are counted as being "watched" before the viewer even arrives at the main title sequence. Some people in the industry refer to this metric as a tally of how many accounts have sampled a Netflix title, rather than watched it. (Only once, Netflix released a ranking of the shows and movies that have accumulated the most total viewing hours in their first 28 days of release -- essentially, what are really the most "watched." More on that below.)

But Netflix's stats also aren't independently verified, nor are they backed up by detailed data from the company, putting Netflix in the position to cherry-pick highlights without much transparency. Traditional media companies, by contrast, report box office performance that's independently monitored, and they're at the mercy of third parties like Nielsen as the barometer for TV shows.

Beyond that, Netflix's two-minute standard for tallying viewership is much more generous than how Nielsen gauges the audience of shows on legacy TV. Nielsen uses a complicated metric known as average minute audience -- suffice to say, it's a lot easier for a show to hit 1 million accounts by Netflix's standard than it is for a show's audience to hit 1 million as measured by Nielsen. Netflix has argued that it needn't conform to methods like Nielsen's, which were developed to measure the reach of advertising. Netflix, after all, has no ads. Still, Nielsen viewership numbers are what many TV watchers are most familiar with.

And sometimes, when Netflix projects viewership early, it gets it wrong. The company initially underestimated how many accounts would watch Bridgerton. Roughly two weeks after the show premiered, Netflix predicted 63 million accounts would watch it in its first four weeks of release. But when the time actually elapsed, 82 million had. Netflix doesn't always update its projected audience stats with final numbers, and it has never provided an update when the final number is lower than the initial projection.

Finally, Netflix is the biggest subscription streaming service of its kind in the world, with 209 million global members as of the end of June. As it grows bigger, so do its shows and movies. That means recent programming has an advantage, since it reaches more viewers than older titles did. 

And soon, all these caveats will change. Netflix plans to toss out its controversial two-minute metric later this year in favor of sharing how many total hours a show or movie was watched during its first 28 days of release. Netflix said Tuesday that the hour-watched yardstick is a "slightly better indicator of the overall success" of its titles and of member satisfaction, plus it "gives proper credit to rewatching."

Netflix's most popular shows

The following are Netflix's most sampled TV series by number of accounts that have watched at least two minutes in the first 28 days of release. The most recent additions are in bold text. Any figures that were projections when Netflix announced them are noted, and this ranking includes only the shows that Netflix has chosen to disclose. Other Netflix titles certainly have accrued enough sampling in the first month of release to make it on this list, but Netflix can cherry-pick which titles get viewership disclosures.  

  1. Squid Game (season 1), a Korean thriller -- 142 million accounts.
  2. Bridgerton (season 1), a period romance -- 82 million accounts. 
  3. Lupin (part 1), a French heist series -- 76 million accounts. 
  4. The Witcher (season 1), a fantasy series based on an existing franchise of books and video games -- 76 million accounts. 
  5. Maid, a limited series about a young mother fleeing abuse -- 67 million accounts projected. 
  6. La Casa de Papel (part 5, first half), or Money Heist, a Spanish-language heist thriller series -- 65 million accounts.
  7. Sex/Life (season 1), a risque drama about a love triangle  -- 67 million accounts. 
  8. Stranger Things (season 3), a retro sci-fi series -- 67 million accounts. 
  9. La Casa de Papel (part 4), or Money Heist, a Spanish-language heist thriller series -- 65 million accounts.
  10. Tiger King, a viral docuseries -- 64 million households. 
  11. The Queen's Gambit, a limited series about a chess prodigy -- 62 million accounts. 
  12. Sweet Tooth (season 1), a series based on a DC comic -- 60 million accounts. 
  13. Emily in Paris (season 1), a comedy series -- 58 million accounts. 
  14. Fate: The Winx Saga (season 1), a teen drama about fairies -- 57 million accounts.
  15. Sex Education (season 3), a British teen dramedy show -- 55 million accounts. 
  16. Shadow and Bone (season 1), a fantasy series -- more than 55 million accounts. 
  17. Who Killed Sara? (season 1), a Mexican series about a brother's hunt for revenge -- 55 million accounts projected.
  18. You (season 2), a psychological thriller series -- 54 million accounts projected.
  19. Lupin (part 2), a French heist series -- 54 million accounts. 
  20. Ginny & Georgia (season 1), a dramedy about a young mother and her kids seeking a fresh start  -- 52 million accounts.
  21. Cobra Kai (seasons 1 and 2, released on Netflix simultaneously), a reboot series of The Karate Kid -- 50 million accounts.
  22. Firefly Lane (season 1), a drama chronicling the friendship of two women over decades -- 49 million accounts.
  23. Ratched (season 1), a psychological thriller series -- 48 million accounts.
  24. Cobra Kai (season 3), a teen action series about a band of misfit martial artists -- 45 million accounts.
  25. Umbrella Academy (season 2), a superhero series -- 43 million accounts.
  26. Lucifer (season 5), a fantasy police-procedural series -- 38 million accounts.
  27. Barbarians (season 1), a German historical action series --  37 million accounts.
  28. Elite (season 4), a Spanish teen drama -- 37 million accounts. 
  29. Who Killed Sara? (season 2), a Mexican crime thriller -- 34 million accounts. 
  30. Love Is Blind (season 1), a dating competition series -- 30 million. 
  31. Too Hot to Handle (season 2), a dating show -- 29 million accounts estimated. 
  32. Selena: The Series (part 1), a Spanish-language show about the famed singer --  25 million accounts.
  33. Sweet Home (season 1), a Korean-language horror show --  22 million accounts.
  34. The Crown (season 3), a historical drama series -- 21 million accounts.
  35. The Sons of Sam (season 1), a true-crime docuseries -- 19 million accounts
  36. Alice in Borderland (season 1), a Japanese-language sci-fi thriller series --  18 million accounts.
  37. The Circle (season 2), a social experiment reality program -- 14 million accounts estimated. 

In September, Netflix gave a snapshot of its Top 10 series by total viewing hours in the first 28 days: essentially, its most watched shows yet. So far it hasn't released any further hours-watched figures even as new shows have been released. For context, those most watched shows as of late September were:

  1. Bridgerton (season 1) -- 625 million hours.
  2. Money Heist (part 4) -- 619 million hours.
  3. Stranger Things (season 3) -- 582 million hours.
  4. The Witcher (season 1) -- 541 million hours.
  5. 13 Reasons Why (season 2) -- 496 million hours.
  6. 13 Reasons Why (season 1) -- 476 million hours.
  7. You (season 2) -- 457 million hours.
  8. Stranger Things (season 2) -- 427 million hours.
  9. Money Heist (part 3) -- 426 million hours.
  10. Ginny & Georgia (season 1) -- 381 million hours.

Netflix's most popular movies

The following are Netflix's most sampled films by the number of accounts that have watched at least two minutes in the first 28 days of release. The most recent additions are in bold text. Any figures that were projections when Netflix announced them are noted, and this ranking includes only the films that Netflix has chosen to disclose. Other Netflix titles certainly have accrued enough sampling in the first month of release to make it on this list, but Netflix can cherry-pick which titles get viewership disclosures. 

  1. Extraction, an action movie starring Chris Hemsworth -- 99 million accounts.
  2. Bird Box, a postapocalyptic movie starring Sandra Bullock -- more than 89 million accounts.
  3. Spenser Confidential, an action-comedy movie starring Mark Wahlberg -- 85 million accounts.
  4. 6 Underground, a Michael Bay explosion-fest starring Ryan Reynolds -- 83 million accounts.
  5. The Old Guard, an action-thriller movie -- 78 million accounts.
  6. Enola Holmes, a period detective film -- 77 million accounts projected.
  7. Project Power, a dark superhero movie -- 75 million accounts.
  8. Army of the Dead, a hybrid heist-zombie flick -- 75 million accounts.
  9. Fatherhood, a dramedy film starring Kevin Hart -- 74 million accounts projected. 
  10. Murder Mystery, a comedy movie starring Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston -- 73 million accounts.
  11. The Midnight Sky, a sci-fi movie directed and starring George Clooney -- 72 million accounts projected.
  12. The Guilty, a crime thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal -- 69 million accounts projected. 
  13. Sweet Girl, an action thriller starring Jason Momoa about husband avenging his wife's death -- 68 million accounts. 
  14. Holidate, a Christmas-themed rom-com movie -- 68 million accounts.
  15. Sex/Life, a drama about a racy love triangle -- 67 million accounts. 
  16. Kissing Booth 2, a teen rom-com flick -- 66 million accounts.
  17. Outside the Wire, a sci-fi movie starring Anthony Mackie as an android supersoldier -- 66 million accounts. 
  18. The Irishman, a period epic about the Mafia, directed by Martin Scorsese -- 64 million accounts.
  19. Triple Frontier, an action/heist movie starring Ben Affleck -- 63 million accounts.
  20. Yes Day, a family film about kids being in charge -- 62 million accounts. 
  21. The Christmas Chronicles: Part Two, a sequel Santa Claus adventure movie --  61 million accounts.
  22. Kissing Booth 3, a teen rom-com flick -- 59 million accounts.
  23. The Wrong Missy, a romantic-comedy movie starring David Spade and Lauren Lapkus -- 59 million accounts.
  24. The Platform, a Spanish sci-fi horror movie -- 56 million accounts.
  25. I Care a Lot, a thriller about a con artist who scammed a dangerous man  -- 56 million accounts. 
  26. He's All That, a teen rom-com film -- 55 million accounts. 
  27. Blood Red Sky, a German action movie about a terrorist airliner plot -- 53 million accounts. 
  28. We Can Be Heroes, the kids-of-superheroes action film -- 53 million accounts projected.
  29. American Murder: The Family Next Door, a true-crime documentary film -- 52 million accounts projected.
  30. To All the Boys: Always and Forever, the final film in a popular teen rom-com trilogy -- 51 million accounts. 
  31. The Perfect Date, a teen romantic-comedy movie -- 48 million accounts.
  32. Below Zero, a Spanish action film about an attack on a prisoner transport truck -- 47 million accounts.
  33. Vivo, an animated family film with song by Lin-Manuel Miranda -- 46 million accounts. 
  34. Over the Moon, an animated film about a girl traveling to a mythical land -- 43 million accounts.
  35. Klaus, an animated holiday film nominated for an Oscar -- 40 million accounts.
  36. The Social Dilemma, a documentary about social-media companies -- 38 million accounts
  37. Squared Love, a Polish rom-com film about a womanizer who falls for a model living a double life -- 31 million accounts.
  38. Just Another Christmas, Netflix's first Portuguese-language holiday film --  26 million accounts.
  39. Space Sweepers, a South Korean space Western about four outcasts who discover a lethal robot child -- 26 million accounts.

In September, Netflix gave a snapshot of its Top 10 movies by total viewing hours in their first 28 days: essentially, its most watched movies yet. So far it hasn't released any further hours-watched figures even as new movie titles have been released. For context, those most watched movies as of late September were:

  1. Bird Box -- 282 million hours.
  2. Extraction -- 231 million hours.
  3. The Irishman -- 215 million hours.
  4. The Kissing Booth 2 -- 209 million hours.
  5. 6 Underground -- 205 million hours.
  6. Spenser Confidential -- 197 million hours.
  7. Enola Holmes -- 190 million hours.
  8. Army of the Dead -- 187 million hours.
  9. The Old Guard -- 186 million hours.
  10. Murder Mystery -- 170 million hours.

What's the difference between something that was most sampled and something that was most watched? 

Titles that are the most sampled, as mentioned before, are ranked by how many accounts watched at least two minutes of them in the first 28 days of release. Titles that are the most watched, which Netflix has disclosed only once, are shows and movies with the greatest total accumulated viewing hours in their first 28 days of release.  

The introduction of the hour-watched data in September provided new context around Netflix's earlier popularity figures, allowing comparisons between programming that racked up a lot of watch-time versus programming that was widely sampled (or, in some cases, both.)

Hours-watched can reveal programming that inspires the most loyalty. Three programs show up in the hours-watched Top 10 list twice, even though none make repeat appearances in the Top 10 most sampled: retro sci-fi series Stranger ThingsMoney Heist, a Spanish-language series also known as La Casa de Papel; and 13 Reasons Why, a teen series that's been criticized for its depiction of suicide. Each have two seasons that made it onto the Top 10 most watched list. Their repeat appearances in the rankings reflect how hours-watched can be a better gauge of the enduring appeal of particular titles. 

Hours-watched also can reveal the strength of some shows that were either released before Netflix began sharing viewership stats, or were released so long ago that Netflix simply had millions fewer accounts that could sample them. As of September, the third season of Stranger Things, for example, was Netflix's fifth most popular show by number of accounts sampling it. But by hours watched, the same season moves up to No. 3 -- and its second season, which came out when Netflix had 100 million fewer subscribers, is its No. 8 top show by hours watched. 

The hours-watched metric also comes with a caveat to keep it mind: It favors movies and TV seasons that have longer runtimes, so long as people stick with them. At three-and-a-half-hours long, The Irishman suddenly appears up high in Netflix's film Top 10 list of movies by hours watched, even though it falls far short of a Top 10 ranking if you count how many accounts sampled it. 

What other viewership stats has Netflix released?

Prior to 2020, Netflix counted views differently. Netflix would count something as "watched" when you got through 70% of it, either of the first episode for a series or of a film's total runtime, within the first 28 days of release. Netflix says the new two-minute threshold is more fair to all titles, regardless of their length. But it also means the newer stats inflated viewership numbers by about one-third compared with the old ones. 

These are previous viewership stats under the 70% rule, for reference.    

  • Stranger Things (season 3), a retro sci-fi series -- 64 million households. 
  • Umbrella Academy (season 1), a superhero series -- 45 million households.
  • Tall Girl, a teen rom-com movie -- 41 million households.
  • Sex Education (season 1), a British teen dramedy show -- more than 40 million households.
  • The Highwaymen, a period crime movie starring Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson -- more than 40 million households.
  • Secret Obsession, a movie mystery about a young wife with amnesia -- 40 million views.
  • Our Planet, a BBC-style nature docuseries -- 33 million households.
  • Always Be My Maybe, a comedy film with Ali Wong and Randall Park -- 32 million households.
  • Unbelievable, a true-crime miniseries about the victims of a serial rapist, and the detectives hunting him down -- 32 million accounts.
  • Dead to Me (season 1), a dramedy series with Christina Applegate -- 30 million households.
  • Otherhood, a movie about a band of moms visiting their adult sons by surprise -- 29 million households. 
  • When They See Us, a buzzy limited series from creator Ava DuVernay about the Central Park Five case -- 25 million households. 
  •  Bodyguard (season 1), a BBC-World Productions series that previously aired in the UK -- 23 million member households.
  • Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, a documentary film about the Fyre Fest debacle -- more than 20 million homes.
  • Élite (season 1), a Spanish-language high-school soap series -- more than 20 million member households. 
  • Baby (season 1), an Italian teen drama series -- more than 10 million homes.
  • The Protector (season 1), Netflix's first Turkish original series -- more than 10 million households.