Meet the Man Who Thinks He Knows Netflix’s Secret Ratings

Streaming giant won’t release its numbers, but Charlie Buchwalter says he has them. Is he right?

On Wednesday, NBC research guru Alan Wurtzel sat down to lunch with television critics and presumed to spill one of the biggest secrets in the entertainment industry: How many people actually watch Netflix.

Immediately, the buzz on these never-before-seen numbers began, and it echoed beyond the halls, ballrooms and lobby of the Langham Huntington hotel, site of the Television Critics Association winter press tour.

Wait, the critics collectively said: Where did you get these?

The question is important because Netflix and Amazon have become a thorn in the side of TV networks that live and die by ratings. Both have snatched high-profile awards from the hands of cable networks and broadcasters. And because the streaming services survive by subscribers, they see no need to say exactly how many people watch their shows.

The answer is Symphony Advanced Media, a San Francisco-based media technology startup that uses audio recognition software from cell phones to measure what’s on TV. TheWrap spoke with SymphonyAM President and CEO Charlie Buchwalter to better familiarize ourselves with the newest player in town (or, a few hundred miles north of town), and to clear up a few ratings questions.

First things first: Does Netflix’s famous claim that “Orange Is the New Black” is the biggest show on TV hold water?

Not according to Buchwalter — and it doesn’t sound like it’s even close.

“Here’s what I would say: When it comes to streaming originals, ‘Orange Is the New Black’ is in a class by itself,” he told us. “I would not go as far to say that in terms of all TV it is at the top of the list, by any stretch of the imagination.”

One might imagine that Netflix and Amazon are displeased with Symphony for sharing numbers the two companies try to keep close to the vest. (They have not responded to TheWrap’s request for comment.) Does Buchwalter get the sense they’re mad at him?

“I don’t have a clue,” he replied. He said he hasn’t actually spoken with either streaming company — yet — though he said talks with other streaming services have been “extremely productive.”

Nielsen has long been the gold standard of measuring viewership, but has dealt with complaints in recent years that it doesn’t adequately convey what people watch online. Symphony says it intensely focuses on crossing media, devices and platforms to allow for a clearer snapshot of what people watch. With the assistance of a few handy patents, Symphony’s technology tracks video on TV, PCs, tablets, and mobile devices. It also measures social media use, website visitation, and general online behavior of its users — all through an app.

Buchwalter says his “single source” approach is superior to Nielsen’s less-granular emphasis on households. He spent 13 years at Nielsen, where he served as chairman and CEO of Nielsen Online’s joint venture in Japan. (Nielsen did not respond to a request for comment.)

Why would anyone sign up to be analyzed in granular detail? As Randy Moss would say: Straight cash, homey.

Symphony’s 15,000 users are paid roughly $5 to $13 per month, depending on how many devices they sign up, and whether they are able to recruit others in their household.

Symphony may soon offer an alternative in which people could participate with no payment. That’s still being figured out.

Buchwalter would like to see his base grow to maybe 50,000 users, but he believes providing an accurate cross-section of America is more important than goosing sheer numbers.

Let’s get a little more technical on how Symphony’s approach works. Each of the 210 national channels in the U.S. have audio fingerprints for every single piece of programming they air. Buchwalter’s app and your cell phone microphone team up to analyze those codes, he says, in “much the same way Shazam works in recognizing the audio on the radio.”

Sounds pretty cool, right? So far, clients such as NBC, ABC, Viacom, Warner Bros. — to name a few — seem to think so.

While Buchwalter praised his parent private equity firm, he said he isn’t averse to the idea of being bought.

“When you are a company like ours that’s growing as quickly as it is, you know that there could be partners out there that could be a really great fit,” he said.