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How Will We Know If Netflix’s House of Cards Was a Hit or a Failure?

Photo: Corbis, Netflix

All thirteen episodes of House of Cards’ first season debut on Netflix Friday, but the folks who run the video service insist they don’t give a damn if America rushes to watch the David Fincher–Kevin Spacey series this weekend. Or next weekend, or next month, for that matter. Executives have said they may never reveal any information about how many people watch the $3 million-plus-per-episode political thriller — or the number of viewings of any of the other four original series they’ll be unveiling this year, including the highly anticipated return of Arrested Development. This has caused no small amount of head-scratching and even some ire in a TV industry where next-day ratings are a grand tradition: Numbers are how you declare yourself a success or reveal yourself a failure. FX chief John Landgraf earlier this month slammed the lack of transparency, telling a conference of TV reporters that Netflix suits “like the fact that they don’t have to have a report card.” What’s more, Landgraf mused, if Netflix doesn’t tell anyone who’s watching its shows, “How will you determine if something’s a hit?” Indeed, and with apologies to the late Whitney Houston, how will we know?

First, it’s worth noting just how unusual Netflix’s screw-the-numbers policy is in our society. We live in the age of Big Data, an era in which everything everybody does (and even thinks) is instantly measured, quantified, dissected, and analyzed. Obviously, we saw it in politics, where most of the narratives of the 2012 presidential election were born from polling data. And it is all over entertainment: The response to Taylor Swift’s latest single is tracked via constantly updated iTunes and Amazon sales charts; whereas only a handful of papers used to report box-office numbers, now weekend grosses are forecasted after Friday’s early screenings; and entire websites reduce TV shows to commodities, with each week’s ratings treated like NASDAQ quotes, and a show’s fate rises and falls based upon each Nielsen fluctuation. Numbers have always been a guidepost for our capitalist system: Casey Kasem made a career out of counting down the Billboard Top 40, and for decades the folks at McDonald’s reminded consumers that they were among the “billions and billions served.” The difference today is that numbers are released with unrelenting speed and each one is treated with equal significance.

But for now, at least, Netflix is refusing to play the all-American numbers game. In a letter to investors a few weeks ago, company CEO Reed Hastings dropped a pretty big hint about why, and it boils down to this: At least in the near-term, data on how many people stream House of Cards right after it goes up is meaningless. “Linear channels must aggregate a large audience at a given time of day and hope the show programmed will actually attract enough viewers despite this constraint,” Hastings wrote. “With Netflix, members can enjoy a show anytime, and over time, we can effectively put the right show in front of members based on their viewing habits … For linear TV, the fixed number of prime-time slots mean that only shows that hit it big and fast survive … In contrast, Internet TV is an environment where smaller or quirkier shows can prosper because they can find a big enough audience over time. In baseball terms, linear TV only scores with home runs. We score with home runs, too, but also with singles, doubles, and triples.” It’s not that Netflix doesn’t care about how many people watch its original shows; it does, very much so. It just can happen over a much longer period of time. “If they like [a show] they watch more,” Netflix programming chief Ted Sarandos told the The Hollywood Reporter last year. “If they watch more, they will value the service more.” What separates Netflix from ABC or even AMC is that it truly doesn’t care if that engagement takes place tomorrow night at ten or six months from now when you come down with a cold and decide to spend the day watching Kevin Spacey sneer at people.

Netflix’s indifference to when you watch its programming is rooted in the fact that, unlike traditional TV networks, it’s a subscription-based service. Ratings, and the ad revenue that results from increased ratings, aren’t part of its equation for success. As long as a home viewer keeps paying his or her $8 per month, Reed Hastings is a happy man. Netfix’s business model isn’t unique in TV, of course: HBO has become a billion-dollar business by taking a similar watch-when-you-want approach to its content. It regularly brings back shows such as Treme, Enlightened, and, yes, even Girls, despite the fact that all three have failed to attract massive audiences the first time their episodes have aired on HBO. Ditto Showtime, where Californication pulls in barely 1 million viewers on Sunday nights — and was just renewed for a seventh season. What the HBO and Showtime series have in common is that they slowly add viewers weeks and months after they first air, as viewers catch multiple replays or watch via video On Demand. Even these cumulative ratings aren’t the be-all at a premium network. The Wire never did well for HBO any way you sliced the ratings, but the network kept it on for five seasons anyway because it kept a certain segment of its subscriber base and contributed to building the network’s “we’re not TV” brand. When you don’t have to worry about advertisers, and subscribers keep shelling out for your service, a show doesn’t have to be declared a “hit” by the entertainment press to be considered a success. What matters for HBO, Showtime, and Netflix is that consumers like you think there’s a reason to keep (or start) paying that monthly subscriber fee.

It would be easy to dismiss Netflix’s no-data-for-you strategy as fear-based, that the company is worried a poor “rating” would prove embarrassing and perhaps even spook investors who’ve already survived those months in 2011 when Netflix lost nearly half its value in just a few months (remember Qwikster?). And who knows? Maybe that is part of the reason for the lack of hard data. But give the company credit: It agreed to fund 26 episodes (two seasons’ worth) of House of Cards for a widely reported price tag of $100 million, before seeing a single frame of footage, not to mention ratings. That in and of itself seems to show Hastings means it when he says that long-term viewing is what counts. By ordering two seasons at once, Netflix will have plenty of time to see how House plays with Netflix subscribers and how it impacts the company’s subscriber base (now at around 30 million globally). While Hastings may say House of Cards value won’t be known for a long time, it would seem that May’s launch of Arrested Development will be a more immediate test of the original-programming plan: It’s a known brand that fans have been clamoring for more of for years, so if its return doesn’t result in an instant surge of binge viewing (and an uptick in subscribers), then it’s hard to imagine any original series moving the needle for Netflix.

So, back to Landgraf’s question: How will we know if House of Cards is a hit? Well, it’s possible Netflix will change its mind and release data after all. HBO never really made much of a fuss about its Nielsen numbers until The Sopranos became a huge hit. If House of Cards smashes a slew of previous Netflix benchmarks, the company’s PR department could persuade Hastings to change his mind. Barring that, the best and only way to judge the success or failure of Netflix’s original programming push is by waiting and watching to see what the company does next, not in the next few months but over the course of a couple of years. Does it keep Spacey’s show going beyond the first two cycles, or does it issue a press release one day claiming that producer David Fincher has decided the story reached its “natural conclusion” after 26 episodes? Does it keep investing hundreds of millions of dollars each year in original programming, commissioning new series or resurrecting others that’s old episodes have been perennial favorites on Netflix? Or does it decide to shift more money into locking up exclusive deals with studios for their movie content (like its recent blockbuster agreement to become the exclusive pay TV home for Disney content beginning in 2015)? And, perhaps most important, does Netflix’s subscriber count keep going up? Remember, with a subscription costing about $100 a year, adding 10 million subscribers over the next few years would bring in an addition $1 billion to Netflix’s coffers. That would buy quite a few more episodes of Arrested Development. If Netflix is writing eight-figure checks for original content five years from now, it’ll probably be safe to declare House of Cards a success.

How Will We Know If House of Cards Was a Hit?