Netflix has changed the way it counts viewers – does it matter?

The streaming platform is now measuring views by total viewing hours, divided by the length of show

Netflix's previous all-time number one show Stranger Things Season 4 has now lost its top spot to Wednesday, due to the company's changing how it counts views. Photo: Netflix
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Not long ago, obtaining viewing figures from Netflix would have been a mission worthy of the greatest spies and action heroes we watch on the streaming giant.

For years, it kept audience data a closely guarded secret, but slowly that has changed. The streamer is now signed up to the official audience ratings agencies in the world’s two biggest English language markets – Nielsen in the US and the UK’s Barb – alongside agreements in several other territories.

This week it announced a shakeup to its audience metric, switching the way it measures from "viewing hours" to "views". Does it matter? We should perhaps start by looking at Netflix’s relationship with audience metrics.

How did Netflix used to report viewers?

For much of the 16 years since Netflix began streaming in January 2007, not at all.

This occasionally veered towards “a little”, primarily when something did extraordinarily well – in December 2018, it took the unusual step of announcing numbers for Bird Box – the Sandra Bullock horror had smashed the seven-day viewing record with views on 45 million accounts.

How about the official agencies?

Nielsen has tried to keep up over the years. In 2014, it launched an opt-in measurement service for streamers, but no one rushed to opt in.

In October 2017, it launched its SVOD Content Ratings Service, but the service relied on audio data, was limited to households on Nielsen’s panel, didn’t measure mobile devices (where much streaming takes place), and only measured US audiences.

When Nielsen expanded its Streaming Meter to 14,000 households in June 2021, Netflix chair Reed Hastings was uncharacteristically positive: “They’re in a good place to referee how streaming is changing the US television landscape,” he told The New York Times, but the relationship remained frosty.

And what about the Netflix charts?

Netflix came out of its shell a little in May 2019 with the launch of its top 10 series/films charts, first in the UK then globally by February 2020. This expanded in November 2021 to four charts, for series and films in the English language, and those in other languages. Now we knew what was popular, but Netflix remained cagey with numbers initially. It also didn’t help matters by constantly changing how it counted.

Prior to 2020 it measured in views, with one view being someone who watched 70 per cent of a show. In January 2020, the platform switched to anyone who watched two minutes (“long enough to indicate the choice was intentional,” it told shareholders).

With the November 2021 charts, Netflix began routinely including audience figures, but with another change – now it measured by total hours viewed.

Pablo Perez De Rosso, Netflix’s vice president of content strategy, praised the new chart when he spoke to the Financial Times that month, but he summed up the views of many in the industry perfectly: “Nonsense. ... Cherry Picked. Unaudited. We’ve had a lot of feedback about our metrics over the years.”

Recently, things have improved dramatically, and we can cynically (but correctly) put that down to one thing – the launch of Netflix’s ad-supported tier.

With no advertisers to report to previously, Netflix never had a reason to release audience data, unless it had something to brag about. Those times have passed, and it’s no coincidence that the platform's agreements to report fully to both Barb and Nielsen were announced in October last year – the ad tier launched in November.

So what is it doing now?

Netflix has changed the way it measures audiences, again. It’s returned to views, but not the 70 per cent or two-minute rules. Now, one view equals "total viewing hours, divided by length of show". If a one-hour show attracts 10 hours of viewing, that’s 10 views.

It’s remarkably logical compared to some of the previous methods, but has meant a shake-up of Netflix’s all-time charts – the new metric is being applied historically – benefitting shorter shows with many viewing hours racked up.

The big headline is that previous all-time #1 show Stranger Things Season Four, with 1.84 billion hours viewed and a 13-hour runtime, aka 140.7 million views, loses top spot to Wednesday, which "only" managed 1.72 billion hours viewed, but was half the length, so had 252.1 million views.

Other shorter beneficiaries include The Queen’s Gambit and The Watcher, coming from nowhere to #5 and #10 respectively. Epics Lucifer and Inventing Anna drop out. The changes to the film chart are negligible due to the broadly similar length of films.

Netflix has also extended the 28-day release window it gives shows to qualify for the all-time lists to 91 days – probably a fairer time for an unhyped show to gain traction, but coincidentally also the length of a financial quarter.

That’s where we are this month, though it could all change again at the next shareholders meeting.

Updated: June 22, 2023, 2:02 PM