Netflix’s New Top 10 Lists Feel Like a Grasp for Relevance

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Earlier this week, Netflix did an uncanny thing: It released viewership statistics. To be clear, the streaming giant has done this before—adding a top 10 carousel to your screen here, dropping a nugget about the popularity of Stranger Things there—but these numbers were different. These numbers were special. Unlike Netflix’s previous metrics, which counted anything watched for at least two minutes as a “view,” the stats released Tuesday ranked shows and movies by total hours watched—and they were global. Whereas Netflix had previously been cagey about its viewership, this seemed like a vast opening of the statistical vault. “‘Nonsense.’ BS.’ ‘Cherry-picked.’ ‘Unaudited.’ We’ve had a lot of feedback about metrics over the years,’” Pablo Perez De Rosso, Netflix’s head of content strategy, planning, and analysis, wrote in a blog post. “So this summer we went back to the drawing board.” The move seemed bold, daring.

It was also, as Todd Spangler pointed out in Variety, “a flex.” The streaming service now has some 213 million subscribers, and it wants the world to know they are devouring hours of content. Previously, Netflix has gotten a lot of mileage out of the mystery behind how popular its movies and shows are—everyone seems to be talking about Bird Box, but who actually watched all of it? Not revealing the details allowed the company to shrug off duds. But now that it has the numbers to show exceptional viewership, it’s claiming bragging rights.

This bit of data transparency is also coming at a time when Netflix needs to show off all the Ws it can. After years of being the primary go-to for streaming content, it’s starting to lose cool points—if not actual eyeballs—to newer services like HBO Max and Disney+. If putting up a splashy new website reminds you that Red Notice is the biggest deal in the world right now, it’s in the company’s best interest to do that. That’s not a joke, by the way. According to Netflix’s numbers, the action-comedy starring The Rock, Ryan Reynolds, and Gal Gadot was watched for 148.72 million hours globally in its first week of release.

But what does that really mean? It’s hard to tell. Red Notice is an hour and 57 minutes long, so that could mean nearly 78 million households watched it all the way through, or 149 million subscribers watched about half of it, or 300 million people watched about 30 minutes, or … you get the idea. But that’s not really the point; the point is that now you’re wondering if people have watched that many hours of Dune or Ted Lasso or something else on a competing streaming service. Releasing the numbers is Netflix’s way of showing how relevant the streamer is in the pop culture conversation. It’s also practically a dare to other services to release their numbers, too.

Ultimately, this transparency in streaming is good, if for no other reason than it gives due credit to the people who create all the movies and TV shows people watch every day. It also provides a lens, albeit a somewhat fuzzy one, on what’s happening culturally in the world. The fact that people are flocking to a movie with marquee names like The Rock, Gadot, and Reynolds may be kind of a no-brainer, but millions queuing up a “cruel and appalling” show like Tiger King in the midst of a global Covid-19 lockdown may say something about the world’s collective psyche. It may say even more if Netflix’s numbers next week show Tiger King 2 didn’t fare as well as its predecessor when it was released a year and a half into the pandemic. 

The existence of the data also deserves scrutiny. Netflix promises that its metrics will be evaluated by independent accounting firm EY, with a report to come next year. In the meantime, viewers are left to take what the company says at face value. That’s not to imply that the numbers are wrong or inflated, just that the top 10 titles on any streaming platform are probably watched by lots of people, and promoting their status only reinforces their dominance—and gets even more people to click on them. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The truly bold move would be for Netflix to reveal its bottom 10.


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