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Netflix won't even reveal 'House of Cards' audience numbers to show's creator

Beau Willimon, creator of Netflix series "House of Cards," says even he doesn't know how many people watch the show, and he's happy that way.

Beau Willimon, right, with "The Wire" creator David Simon. Joan E. Solsman/CNET

NEW YORK -- Netflix has never publicly shared viewership data on its high-profile original series "House of Cards" or any other of its shows, exasperating TV traditionalists raised on a diet of Nielsen ratings.

Not even the "House of Cards" creator himself is privy to the numbers. But he's fine with that.

"I have no idea how many people watch 'House of Cards,'" said Beau Willimon, creator of Netflix's marquee original show. Willimon was speaking on a panel about data and television at the Tribeca Film Festival here Thursday.

Original content is key to the future for Netflix, which envisions itself as an online television provider to surpass HBO. And the online-streaming company has been busily tapping its reservoir of viewer-preference data to gauge what types of shows have a built-in audience among its subscriber base. Willimon's comments reinforce Netflix's reputation, though, that once its data-mining results in a decision about what show to make, the company is hands-off in regard to the creative process.

"Netflix closely guards [viewership] data for a whole host of reasons, and I'm glad that they do, I wouldn't want access to that data," Willimon said. "That sort of data leads to pandering, which is the antithesis of creativity."

Willimon says the extent of his personal data-mining is looking at Netflix member reviews of "House of Cards" when viewers have given the show only one or two stars.

"It's not self-punishment," he said. "But what are the things that people who don't like this show bring up?" Some criticisms, like a gripe that a dog is killed in the first 30 seconds, tell him some people aren't meant to be viewers of this show. But others, like widespread confusion about a plot point, tell him when he didn't do his job right.

New York radio station WNYC's has posted a full audio recording of the discussion, called "Stories by Numbers," in partnership with the Tribeca Film Festival.