The news that Nielsen has finally begun to track Netflix viewership made waves this morning, as the nearly century-old audience measurer declared its plan to shed some light on some of the greatest mysteries of our contemporary TV era. (Like “How many people are watching Fuller House, and what can be done to stop them?”) The announcement is not without its caveats: Surveying Netflix usage is meant to combat an aggravating lack of transparency on the part of the streaming platform—and competitors like Amazon and Hulu—but Nielsen won’t be making those numbers public. They’ll be distributed to clients including Disney, Warner Bros., and NBCUniversal, who’ll, oh, I don’t know, do their friends in the viewing public and the TV press a solid by releasing that information on their own?
Hoping for that type of release is its own folly, because there’s no way it’d come out without its own, requisite spin. But it feels like a move in the right direction, even though other, similar initiatives to gauge Netflix’s audience with audio-recognition software have failed to break the streamer of its private ways. What they did do, however, was yield statements like the one Netflix gave Variety, which sounds less like Silicon Valley PR jargon and more like the latest, dissembling gibberish issued from the Trump White House:
“The data that Nielsen is reporting is not accurate, not even close, and does not reflect the viewing of these shows on Netflix,” the company said in a statement.
Here’s an idea: If Netflix is concerned about inaccurate information getting out into the world, why doesn’t it divert some of the $8 billion it’s going to spend on original content next year to publicly correcting Nielsen? What does it have to lose by crowing about how many people have watched Stranger Things, Orange Is The New Black, or Master Of None, of which casual, anecdotal estimates come out to “a lot.” This sort of stubbornness only rouses suspicion and fuels the impression that Netflix is trying to cover up some costly mistakes, something it’s only recently begun to cop to by, say, canceling Gypsy.
Now, Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu do not share their broadcast and cable counterparts’ onus to report how many people watch a particular show or a particular series. Their business model is subscription-based, not advertiser-supported. The nation’s manufacturers of automobiles and alcoholic beverages aren’t underwriting Millie Bobby Brown’s telekinetic adventures, and therefore don’t need a breakdown of how many of what type of person is watching Stranger Things.
It would be a lot less galling if Netflix, in particular, wasn’t so confrontational about every new attempt to pry open its chamber of secrets. It also doesn’t help that this is a matter of cultural precedent, the streaming platforms following the example of their Silicon Valley cohorts by being needlessly secretive about the finer details of their customer base. If you want to get an idea of how big or how little a streaming show’s audience is—one of the metrics that has traditionally determined whether that show lives or dies, or whether the people who distribute that show can label it “a hit”—you need an inside source like the one who told The Wall Street Journal that “fewer than one million people watched recent seasons of Transparent.”
Statements like the one Netflix gave Variety are the perfect storm of horseshit, brewed up by a tech-bro/showbiz chimera high on the myth of “disruption.” Netflix has its competitors in legacy media running scared, even though its product is merely a minor tweak of a trusted formula. (You don’t need an algorithm to tell you that a serial-killer docudrama is going to prove popular.) If Netflix doesn’t want to play by the old rules, fine, but the company should recognize that it forfeited the right to complain about Nielsen’s data the moment it chose to keep the true numbers internal.