Netflix Is Now Beating HBO in Buzz... and Subscribers
Taylor Schilling in 'Orange Is the New Black'; Emilia Clarke in 'Game of Thrones' (Netflix; HBO)
Forget all the headlines calling Netflix "the new HBO." It's even better than that.
The streaming service hit a major benchmark this week when it announced in its third-quarter earnings report that its domestic subscriber base has grown to 31.1 million. That puts it ahead of HBO for the first time, which had about 28.7 million U.S. subscribers at last count… and a three-decade head start.
Of course, Netflix has been riding a tidal wave of good buzz all year long. "House of Cards" debuted to raves in February, announcing Netflix's arrival as a major player in the TV business and earning nine Emmy nominations (the first for an online-only show). Netflix revived cult hit "Arrested Development" in May and then topped itself in July with the women's-prison dramedy "Orange Is the New Black" — which will finish the year as Netflix's most-watched original series ever, and should earn quite a few Emmy nods of its own next year.
We do have to take a lot of this on faith, though, since Netflix doesn't release ratings data for its shows. The most that chief executive Reed Hastings will say about "Orange Is the New Black"'s numbers is that it "enjoys an audience comparable with successful shows on cable and broadcast TV." (So, somewhere between 2 and 25 million viewers.) But there is one show that backs up Netflix's rapidly growing influence with hard numbers, and it's not even one of its original series: AMC's "Breaking Bad."
Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) in 'Breaking Bad' Season 5 (AMC/Frank Ockenfels)
For its first four and a half seasons, "Breaking Bad" was an acclaimed but modestly rated cable drama that topped out at less than 3 million viewers. But thanks to Netflix making past seasons available for streaming, curious TV watchers were able to get caught up on Walter White's riveting descent into darkness at their own pace. ("BB" is consistently among Netflix's most-viewed TV shows.)
When "Breaking Bad" returned to AMC for its final eight episodes, it exploded: 5.9 million viewers tuned in for the August 11 premiere (nearly doubling the previous series high), with a mind-boggling 10.3 million witnessing last month's series finale. Spikes in viewership like that don't just happen. Sure, we can chalk it up to a few other factors: word of mouth, DVD sales, iTunes. But more than anything, "Breaking Bad"'s massive audience growth is the best evidence we have so far of the sheer power of Netflix.