The major SVODs are black boxes when it comes to sharing ratings information but, while it’s frustrating for pundits and analysts on the outside, Hollywood insiders seem sanguine about the lack of transparency.
Unlike traditional box office and ratings numbers from bodies like Nielsen, streaming data from the likes of Netflix, Disney+, HBO Max, Apple TV+, Amazon’s Prime Video and Hulu lives behind an opaque wall. It’s remains nearly impossible for dealmakers, let alone viewers, to define what is a hit and what is a bomb.
It’s unlikely to change soon — but the feeling is that change in the form of a cross-platform set of viewing metric is inevitable.
Streamers collect huge amounts of granular data from their subscribers — and that’s one chief reason why they keep it under lock and key. Why give a competitor an advantage when you aren’t obligated to?
“The advantages of being direct-to-consumer is we get an immense amount of data,” WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar tells The Hollywood Reporter in a sharply written and well researched article by Tatiana Siegel and Rick Porter.
“You don’t just see the viewing numbers, you see how they view it,” says Kilar. “What order do they view things in? How much do they watch? How much do they finish? How do they respond to various prompts to help us get better at helping them find something they love? I wouldn’t expect us or other players to put numbers out just because it’s really hard for people to understand apples-to-apples comparisons. So we labor over it. We know exactly how well these shows are doing.”
Instead, SVODs release occasional snippets of data only when it suits them. For example, a recent AppleTV+ press release said: “Over the Ted Lasso season two premiere weekend, Apple TV+ expanded its new viewers by a record-breaking 50 percent week-over-week…. The second season of Ted Lasso increased its viewership by 6x over season one.”
Per THR, that news release didn’t state any baseline figures with which to compare the 50% week-to-week jump or the sixfold increase for Ted Lasso, and is typical of public-facing comments from most streamers.
In another example, in December 2018 Netflix tweeted, “45,037,125 Netflix accounts have already watched [Sandra Bullock-starring feature] Bird Box.” At the time, “watched” meant 70% of a movie (or 70% of one episode of a series). Notes THR, “With no way to verify the data, the claim is little more than spin.”
It can also backfire. Disney, for example, issued a press release about the streaming numbers on Disney+ Premier Access and the opening theatrical weekend of Black Widow, only to have exhibitor group NATO on its back blaming day-and-date streaming on a disastrous second week box office drop-off, a damaging public battle with star Scarlet Johansson for recompense pegged to its streaming performance, and analysts attacking the studio’s whole strategy.
THR sent questions to four other major streaming outlets — Apple TV+, Hulu, Netflix and Amazon — asking what and how much data they share with producers, actors and other above-the-line talent on their projects and whether a shared currency for SVOD is important. Apple TV+ and Hulu declined to comment, and the other two didn’t reply by press time.
Yet according to some in the know, this status quo is tolerated and expected to change over time.
“Streamers are going to have to release more data to those who are creating shows on their platforms,” UTA co-president Jay Sures told THR. “Whether it’s next week, next month, next year or sometime soon after, it is inevitable. Eventually, there will be a new technology that can give the interested parties accurate data.”
Also in the article, talent lawyer Joel McKuin says the world was ever thus. “They don’t seem to be straight with you even when you have the goods,” he says. “It’s a bit of a dance. But it always was, even pre-streaming. They [studios/streamers] would find a way to undermine something’s value. So we’ve become used to not knowing. I’ve become more sanguine about it.”
Another reason why streamers remain reluctant to release data and a reason why this may change is that the data itself may be misleading if paired up. Once up on a time box office figures or peak time viewing indicated to the industry what particular programming or dayparts or audiences were worth. Now the way a piece of content is streamed means its value is more subjective to the individual streamer.
For example, which metric is most important? Subscription acquisitions? Engagement? Or something else entirely?
“[With] TV and the way it used to report, your monetization of a show was how many people watched because the advertisers were buying that,” WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group chair and CEO Ann Sarnoff says. “That [was] a much more contained ecosystem than streaming. It’s not just your initial view. It’s the behavior of that new sub that comes in the door and what else they watch, and do you keep them?”
Sarnoff adds, “I appreciate the desire for data, but I think the data has changed, and it’s not yet been fully vetted in terms of what is the right data for the digital world because it’s not that instantaneous advertiser fulfilment. It’s a much bigger ecosystem and a longer life of the consumer behavior.”
Two conditions may make cross-platform VOD metrics likely in future. One is that measurement bodies like Nielsen or Comscore (or Barb in the UK) will become more accurate in their ability to count streaming views. The second is that when the big streamers plateau their subs numbers then comparisons with competitors would be more relevant.
Kilar predicts, “There’s going to be a short list of folks that get to scale, and then I think you’ll probably see a bit more transparency because we all know what we’re dealing with, and you can build businesses and frameworks and other things on top of it. Right now… whether you’re talking about Peacock or Paramount+ or Disney+ or Hulu, it’s not the same foundation. So that’s part of why you’re seeing kind of a ‘less than’ [when it comes to sharing data]. If I were in your shoes, I’d want it to distil down to one simple thing — and you get the email in the morning on Saturday and, boom, things are done.”