Avatar: The Last Airbender Is Netflix’s Surprise Summer Hit

Photo: Courtesy of Nickelodeon

Avatar: The Last Airbender premiered on Nickelodeon just as George W. Bush was starting his second term and ended its run before Barack Obama was elected president. It’s also shaping up to be one of this summer’s breakout Netflix hits.

While quantifying success for streaming shows isn’t an exact science due to the lack of an industry-ratings standing for the medium, the publicly available data that does exist suggests The Last Airbender is doing spectacularly well. The animated series, which tells the story of a boy fated to restore balance to his war-torn world, arrived on Netflix on May 15 and almost immediately seemed to catch the attention of American audiences:

• The Last Airbender landed on Netflix’s daily top-ten series list within a day of its debut, climbing to the No. 1 spot in the U.S. on May 19 and ranking as the most popular TV show or movie on the service for the full week of May 14-21.

• It slipped from the top spot by May 24, but it’s been among the top ten shows on the service ever since. That’s more than a month, outlasting other high-profile hits released around the same time, including season four of Queer Eye, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt interactive movie, and new original drama Sweet Magnolias.

• Research firm Parrot Analytics — which tracks interest in TV shows as measured by search engines, critic and fan ratings sites, blogs, and social media, among other sources — says The Last Airbender has exploded in popularity since entering the Netflix library. It says U.S. audience demand for the show jumped 206 percent last month vs. May 2019, and has ranked the show among the ten biggest TV shows on any U.S. platform in its two most recent demand reports. Indeed, Parrot says interest in the show has grown over its five-week run on Netflix: During the week of June 7-13, The Last Airbender was 71.2 times more in demand than the typical U.S. TV title, up from 59.8 times more popular two weeks sooner.

• And in a related sign of how popular the Avatar: The Last Airbender franchise remains, sequel series The Legend of Korra (which ran on Nick from 2012 until 2014) has been a big hit for rival streamer CBS All Access. A rep for the platform says the show has been the No. 1 kids title on the service since the show premiered in January.

The usual caveats to all of the above apply: Netflix’s self-reported popularity rankings aren’t comparable to Nielsen ratings, both because they’re not independently verified and because they don’t measure average audience for a show. (Netflix ranks shows according to how many people select a title and then spend at least two minutes watching it, which is a fair gauge of how much interest there is in a show but doesn’t measure overall time spent watching a show or whether members who check out a show or movie stick with it til the end.) And because streamers don’t generally report specific average audience numbers, there’s no way of knowing for sure whether 25 million or 2.5 million Americans have binged The Last Airbender in the past month.

Still, the fact that reruns of a 15-year-old animated series are doing so well is pretty incredible, particularly given the lack of any major coordinated marketing push for the show. This speaks to something Netflix execs have long pointed to as a key strength of the platform: The ability to use the vaunted algorithm to connect subscribers to the right content. There’s no need to spend $20 million on TV ads for a library title like The Last Airbender when Netflix can simply put the title on the homepage for millions of members whose past viewing habits indicate they’d be into it.

And the fact that Parrot’s data suggests interest in The Last Airbender has grown over time may be a sign of just how smart it was for Netflix to begin showing members a content row listing the top 10 titles on the service for any given day. Tell people that other people are into something, and a significant number of folks are going to want to see what all the fuss is about. And yes, those of us in the media who write about Netflix’s top-ten lists are part of the platform’s marketing ecosystem.

What About the Next Airbender?

There’s another reason the seeming success of The Last Airbender is good news for the platform: A live-action series adaptation has been in the works at the streamer since 2018, with original creators Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko supervising production. Though no doubt many of the people watching the animated series on Netflix now are likely millennials reliving their youth and catching up on what’s become a beloved classic, the continuing success of the show these past five weeks hints at the possibility of new fans being created. In essence, these reruns are serving as a very effective marketing campaign for the coming live-action series (as well as a palate cleanser for any damage done to the franchise by 2010’s live-action feature-film adaptation, a critical and box-office disaster overseen by director M. Night Shyamalan).

So what’s the status of the new Airbender series? Reps for Netflix and Nickelodeon both declined comment on where things stand with the project, though sources confirm it’s still in development at the platform. Still, there are signs things are progressing — though fans hoping to stream the series this year will almost certainly disappointed.

The last major update on the state of production came in mid-March via Konietzko’s Instagram, and at the time, he said plans to begin casting via an open casting call sometime in 2019 were still on hold. “Obviously we have not reached that stage yet or else you would have heard about it from me, Netflix, etc.,” he wrote. “We’re working on some awesome stuff, but we’re still in development/pre production.” Noting that the coronavirus pandemic had brought global TV production to a halt, he indicated remote work on the project was continuing. “At the moment, we are lucky that our small team on the adaptation is still moving things forward as best we can, obviously all working remotely,” Konietzko explained, promising that when there is “news we *can* share, we will share it … Just be patient.”

Without knowing how far along in the script process the show’s writers are, it’s hard to know when the live-action The Last Airbender series might land on screens. Even if all episodes have been written, if casting hasn’t started, that process could take several months once coronavirus restrictions ease to the point that casting calls could take place. (An open call with thousands of actors seems unlikely anytime soon, though producers could change course and opt for a more limited casting process.) It’s likely Netflix’s adaptation of The Last Airbender will be relatively epic in scope, too, something which would require a longer shoot and extensive special-effects work. So unless Netflix and the show’s producers have been operating under extreme secrecy, and a cast is actually quietly waiting to start filming, it’s hard to see the live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender debuting any earlier than late 2021.

Given how popular the reruns are doing right now, Netflix execs probably wouldn’t have minded having the new live action series premiere much earlier, ideally sometime later this year. But maybe there’s an upside to waiting: Netflix has even more time to recruit new audiences (young and old) into the Avatar: The Last Airbender universe.

Avatar: The Last Airbender Is Netflix’s Surprise Summer Hit