We’re Still a Long Way Away From Knowing How Many People Watch Netflix and Amazon Shows

Photo: Maya Robinson and Photos by Netflix and Amazon

TV ratings wonks were temporarily thrown into a tizzy Tuesday night over a report that numbers giant Nielsen was going to start measuring viewership for streaming services Netflix and Amazon Prime. Both companies have declined to reveal substantial viewership stats, arguing that such measurements are irrelevant (or, at least, less relevant) under their subscription-based business model. But the story in The Wall Street Journal had data junkies rejoicing: We’ll finally know exactly how many people are watching Orange Is the New Black, or whether anyone has actually seen a full episode of Hemlock Grove! Except maybe not. It turns out that Nielsen’s new streaming ratings are probably not going to be the comprehensive yardstick yearned for by quantification addicts.

Nielsen hasn’t issued a press release or statement about its plans, but according to the Journal, starting next month, the company will use its existing in-home metering devices to analyze audio patterns of Netflix and Amazon Prime shows, and then use that information to come up with a metric for how many people are streaming said shows. This tech doesn’t require the subscription-video companies to give their permission, the paper noted. It’s also not comprehensive, since Nielsen’s audio gimmick doesn’t yet work on mobile devices such as iPads or cell phones. This is no small detail: One industry insider familiar with the streaming space says a substantial percentage of Netflix and Amazon viewership takes place via mobile, more so than for traditional broadcast and cable networks. Whatever numbers Nielsen comes up will be incomplete until the company figures out a way to count mobile streams. (The Journal says Nielsen is “working” on that.)

An even bigger question, however, is which Netflix and Amazon programming Nielsen plans to measure. The Journal story only addresses one type of content: TV shows the services license from outside studios (such as Scandal on Netflix or Under the Dome on Amazon). Right now, when a program supplier such as Warner Bros. TV or ABC Studios strikes a deal to put its content on a streaming service, it does so without knowing exactly what sort of benefit that service gets from its show. It could be that 20 percent of all Netflix viewing comes from folks catching up on Breaking Bad, for all the studios know. Or it could be the reason ratings for New Girl are down so much in recent years is because folks now watch the show a year later on Netflix. Nielsen senior vice-present Brian Fuhrer told the Journal that his company’s new data stream means “our clients will be able to look at their programs and understand: Is putting content on Netflix impacting the viewership” on other platforms?

What the Journal story doesn’t mention at all is whether Nielsen has any plans to tally viewership for original content produced exclusively for Netflix and Amazon — shows such as Orange, Transparent, and House of Cards. In theory, it would seem the same Nielsen tech that measures the audio on Scandal could also pick up whatever House of Cards sounds like. One industry insider, however, wonders whether Nielsen would bother spending the time and money to measure Netflix and Amazon originals unless a specific client were willing to foot the bill for it. The Journal notes that, at least initially, “companies will be able to view program ratings only for their own content,” though ultimately the ratings would able to subscribe to a broader measurement. Netflix and Amazon, however, are never going to pay Nielsen to measure their shows, since both companies have much more accurate internal figures. There’s one possible wrinkle, however: Some Netflix shows, including House of Cards, are produced by outside companies and licensed exclusively to Netflix. It’s conceivable one of those companies — Media Rights Capital, in the case of Cards— could decide it wants hard viewership figures for its shows, either to strike a better deal or to use as leverage in selling the show in markets where Netflix doesn’t have rights. But this is all speculation, and even if MRC or another company were to pay Nielsen to measure its shows, there’s no guarantee the rest of us would see that information. The bottom line: We’re still probably a long way away from seeing streaming shows listed alongside network shows on Nielsen’s weekly ratings charts.