Netflix says Squid Game is off to the fastest start of any new series in the streamer’s nearly nine-year history of originals, but new Nielsen data suggest U.S. audiences took a minute to find the show. According to the ratings giant, the nine-episode Korean drama accumulated a solid — yet relatively modest — Stateside audience of 206 million viewing minutes during its first three days on Netflix, just missing out on a spot in Nielsen’s top-ten lists of streaming-content viewership for the week of September 13 to 19. While that performance may not seem to line up with all the hype surrounding the show in recent weeks, it would be a mistake to read too much into this early snapshot, particularly since plenty of other signals are pointing to Squid Game being a smash.
First, some context: Nielsen’s streaming ratings, while a solid gauge of consumer interest, do have some limitations. The company’s public numbers, for example, don’t include viewing that takes place on mobile devices, which, in the case of Squid Game, could result in a notable undercount if a sizable chunk of its initial viewership took place among Gen-Z audiences more used to watching TV on their phones and tablets. Also, had Squid Game bowed just a few weeks earlier, it would have landed in the top ten its first week out; at the end of August, Nielsen’s top-ten lists boasted three shows with under 200 million viewing minutes. And this first check-in includes only three days of potential viewership for the series since Nielsen’s ratings week runs from Monday through Sunday. Next week’s Nielsen tally will include a full week of audience consumption.
What’s most important to keep in mind is that Squid Game launched with basically zero advance marketing or publicity in the U.S., save for a specially designed trailer for American audiences. And per Netflix’s own public-facing top-ten lists, the show didn’t hit No. 1 in the U.S. until September 21, which is outside the frame captured by Nielsen’s first report card. Brian Fuhrer, senior VP of product strategy at Nielsen, says he wouldn’t be shocked if Squid Game “follows a pattern similar to Tiger King, where a relatively unknown program started slowly, then picked up momentum driven by a combination of social buzz and recommendation-engine spotlighting.” Indeed, Tiger King tripled its U.S. audience (as measured by Nielsen) between its first and third days on Netflix back in March 2020, then doubled it again by the end of its first week.
Although Nielsen’s count hasn’t yet captured Squid Game’s heat, other third-party measurement platforms continued to show massive audience interest in the series. Parrot Analytics, whose early data also had the show coming out of the gate just medium-hot, particularly in the U.S., had the series rocketing to the top of its demand index globally within ten days of its premiere, with interest growing exponentially day over day. Netflix has been rushing to meet consumer demand for Squid Game merchandise, and yes, costumes related to the show are a hot commodity right now: Squid Game costume has been the most searched term on Amazon Marketplace over the past week.
Squid Game’s early performance is all the more remarkable given that it debuted during a spectacularly competitive month in American television. The series started just as NFL football was coming back in full swing, drawing tens of millions of U.S. viewers, while the broadcast networks began premiering their new and returning shows en masse starting in mid-to-late September. Although the Big Four aren’t nearly as big as they once were, they still collectively command 20 million or so viewers on many nights. Indeed, per another just-released Nielsen report called “The Gauge,” broadcast TV commanded a 26 percent share of consumer viewing time in September, up from 24 percent in August and the most since Nielsen began issuing monthly reports on platform share last May. Netflix claimed a 6 percent share of viewing time for the month, down from 7 percent in August but still double the closest subscription streaming rival, Hulu’s 3 percent, and triple Amazon Prime Video’s 2 percent share. Cable TV remains the dominant medium in terms of overall consumption, per Nielsen, accounting for 38 percent of all viewing last month.