At the NATPE Streaming Plus event in Hollywood at the end of July, Amy Reinhard, Netflix’s VP of content acquisition, was asked for hard viewership numbers on the streaming service’s shows. Reinhard politely demurred. “I wish I could tell you!” she exclaimed.
This is the same, seemingly regretful song-and-dance the company always provides. For years, Netflix — along with streaming colleagues like Hulu and Amazon Prime Video that don’t rely exclusively on advertising dollars for their revenue — has refused to provide verifiable numbers on ratings. And why should they? These are all part of publicly traded conglomerates who need to please shareholders; those shareholders want to know about the cold, hard, guaranteed cash coming in from subscribers, not touchy-feely metrics like viewers.
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This is short-sighted, however, because it ignores how ratings can translate to awards, a key currency in the entertainment space. With a ballot that is at best is overwhelming and at worst encourages cheating, verifiable viewership data for all contenders would help Academy members sift through the voting rounds with a modicum of honesty and integrity.
Without them, what results in prestige TV contenders is a game of telephone among Television Academy members and the entertainment media. Is there no buzz about this season of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” or does there just seem like there is no buzz because no one is watching it in your immediate cohort? Is the show still worth watching, let alone voting for? Some in the media believe “Handmaid’s” has fallen off a cliff critically and morally, but sources close to the production counter that it is actually the most-watched season to date, beating even Season 1, which won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series.
Should this change a Television Academy member’s critical view of the season? If they are of the rare breed who watches everything and takes a hard line toward their job as pop-culture kingmakers, it won’t. But let’s be honest: Knowing the season is a ratings success will definitely bolster its chances.
This strikes directly at the soft underbelly of the TV Academy: the perception that, in the era of Peak TV, its 25,000 members aren’t as discriminating as their Oscar-voting colleagues. Ratings give TV projects gravitas, and gravitas is, ultimately, something that TV Academy members desperately want to use to narrow their choices.
It was humanly impossible to watch all 165 shows nominated for Outstanding Drama this year; next year, this number will be higher and the task even more insurmountable with the addition of shows from Disney+ and Apple TV+. While “popular” certainly does not equate to “good,” knowing which ones resonate with the public gives voters a solid baseline to start from as opposed to the subjective haze of, “Oh, I saw an episode, it was fine!” and “Oh, my friend worked on that!” — to name two commonly used metrics.
The viewership numbers currently provided by streaming services can’t be relied upon. Take the case from this year of Netflix’s “When They See Us.” Ava DuVernay’s four-episode telling of the horrendous miscarriage of justice suffered by the Central Park Five earned 16 nominations. Throughout awards season, there were several nudge-nudge-wink-wink posts by Netflix and DuVernay alluding to viewership numbers:
When They See Us has been the most-watched series on Netflix in the US every day since it premiered on May 31 pic.twitter.com/jS8IXIh03g
— Netflix US (@netflix) June 12, 2019
Imagine believing the world doesn’t care about real stories of black people. It always made me sad. So when Netflix just shared with me that 23M+ accounts worldwide have watched #WhenTheySeeUs, I cried. Our stories matter and can move across the globe. A new truth for a new day. pic.twitter.com/4vgCo0aKR9
— Ava DuVernay (@ava) June 25, 2019
Just leaving @Netflix. All execs who worked on #WhenTheySeeUs across prep, principal, post, marketing gathered to toast our Sweet 16 noms. Then, there was another meeting. They pulled back the curtain on key viewing data. And… wow. Emotional. It keeps growing. Truly incredible. pic.twitter.com/12zkVIijiX
— Ava DuVernay (@ava) July 17, 2019
These teases were, frankly, infuriating, and raised more questions than they answered. Did viewers watch the first episode and call it quits? Did they watch all four? How long does it take for Netflix to register a “watch”? How is “series” defined? Were more people watching “When They See Us” than the very expensive and comparably mindless “Friends” in that timeframe? That would be amazing! But we don’t know. DuVernay’s follow-up tweets muddled matters more: 23 million accounts watched worldwide; does that include or exclude the U.S. numbers that were first alluded to? Again, how long is a “watch”? What’s the “key viewing data” they shared?
DuVernay’s important and vital work has had real-world consequences: The lead prosecutor Linda Fairstein was dropped by her book publisher, and she resigned her position on the board of Vassar College. It is dismissive to not give the full picture in these strategically timed tweets to Academy voters on how many people have seen the work; playing coy causes the public to second-guess its ultimate reach and impact instead of reveling in its import. Thankfully, Netflix’s teasing with fungible numbers didn’t hurt the project’s Emmy prospects.
Others may not be so lucky; Netflix’s tweet about “Murder Mystery” was met with more guffaws than the film itself. (Cue the litany: What’s an account? How long did they watch? What’s a “Netflix Film” [sic]? etc. etc.)
🚨ADAM SANDLER AND JENNIFER ANISTON BREAKING NEWS ALERT🚨
30,869,863 accounts watched Murder Mystery in its first 3 days – the biggest opening weekend ever for a Netflix Film. 13,374,914 accounts in the US and Canada, and 17,494,949 more worldwide.
— Netflix Is A Joke (@NetflixIsAJoke) June 18, 2019
This needs to change by this time next year. Except for the ceremonies and parties, the 2019 Emmy season has come to an end. Voting closed last night at 10 p.m. PT. When the Primetime Emmy telecast wraps up on Sept. 22, we’ll know for certain if “Game of Thrones” wins a record number of Emmys after receiving its record 32 nominations.
“Game of Thrones,” by the way, earned 19.3 million viewers for its final episode, a record for HBO, and almost doubling the ratings of the finale of “The Sopranos,” if you’re looking for some gravitas. HBO, notably, is a subscription-supported network that still blares its ratings each week and that will work in its favor on Emmy night. “Game of Thrones” is another series that was critically reviled this year, but that kind of verifiable cultural import shown by the ratings can’t — and won’t — be beat next month. The streaming services should take note.