How Will We Know Who’s Winning Streaming War if Every Service Counts Views Differently?

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Netflix changing how it counts views shows there is little rhyme or reason to measuring how shows perform

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The days of comparing ratings are nearly extinct, now verging on becoming a bygone relic of when “Seinfeld” versus “Home Improvement” was measured. As more customers ditch traditional TV for streaming, services are coming up with their own ways to measure success — and this data is only rarely shared with the public. This became especially clear this week after Netflix changed how it calculates views. The streaming heavyweight had been counting a “view” after 70% of a show or movie was watched; now, Netflix counts a view after 2 minutes of content are streamed. Netflix admitted the new metric “is about 35% higher on average than the prior metric,” helping to inflate the already-guarded viewer data it seldom reveals. Netflix didn’t waste time using the new measurement to trumpet some of its recent successes: In its letter to shareholders on Tuesday, Netflix boasted “The Witcher,” the Henry Cavill-led fantasy show, was watched by 76 million households in its first month, making it the biggest first season debut in the service’s history. Moving forward, the question becomes: without a universal agreement on what counts as a view, is it going to be harder to tell who’s winning and losing in streaming? “There are a lot of gray metrics,” Wedbush analyst Dan Ives said, “and with the streaming wars heating up, measurement and apples to apples comparisons will be more difficult.” It’s already difficult to track. Here’s what we know: Netflix now counts views after 2 minutes; Hulu counts a view once 10% of a show — or about three minutes worth of a half-hour show — has been watched, according to someone familiar with the company’s data tracking; Facebook counts a view for its Watch shows after three seconds. Each company is leaning into its own definition of what a “view” is. There’s even more we don’t know about viewer data at rival services. Amazon Prime Video notoriously refrains from sharing any viewer data or defining how it counts views. A rep for Quibi, the upcoming mobile-only streaming service, declined to comment on how the company will count views. The same goes for Peacock, and a rep for HBO Max did not respond to a request for comment. And it’s not worth holding your breath waiting for Disney+ to share any viewer data. “We don’t have a huge amount of plans yet to release audience data,” Disney+ boss Kevin Mayer said in November. “If we decide it’s needed, either if our audience really desires it or our creative partners really need it, or our distribution partners. We’ll consider that from time to time, but right now no plans to release a substantial amount of data.” With more companies joining the streaming market and less viewer data being shared, the picture is only getting more obscure when it comes to which shows are truly resonating. In the past, Nielsen was the go-to firm for tracking ratings, but it’s ubiquity has faded away in the streaming age. Nielsen, for about two years, has been tracking views for Netflix’s shows and recently announced it can now do the same for Prime Video. Yet Nielsen has only occasionally released its Netflix viewer data to this point, and Netflix has pushed back on the firm’s ability to track its shows when it does, saying Nielsen’s viewer data was “not even close” to being correct. The viewer enigma has left analysts turning towards the one great equalizer: subscriber count. “We believe subscribers are the hearts and lungs of success and many other metrics are secondary,” Ives said. Paul Hardart, a former Warner Bros. executive and current head of the Entertainment, Media and Technology Program at NYU, agreed, saying the “key metric” for services “remains subscriber acquisition and retention”; this is an “implicit reflection of utility,” Hardart added. That’s what it boils down to. Services are banking on viewers not caring about how many other viewers stream their favorite shows; the fans just care about whether they’re enjoying the show or not. These services are also betting investors and analysts don’t care as much about views as they do subscribers. As long as customers are voting with their wallets and not canceling their subscriptions, the rest is ancillary. The one exception to this could turn out to be Peacock. Considering it’ll feature two ad-supported subscription options, NBCU could be forced to be more transparent than its competitors in order to woo advertisers. One casualty in this shift towards a post-ratings landscape will be content creators. This move has shifted the power balance towards the streaming services, former ABC Daytime chief Brian Frons told TheWrap last year. With more shows available than ever before, services are able to either keep creators in the dark on performance or share internal data that pales in comparison to traditional metrics for huge shows. “Program makers will always want to know if their shows are important to the platform, but given the high volume of shows on all the platforms, ratings will not give suppliers the leverage it would in the heyday of network television if one was the supplier of ‘ER,’ ‘Friends’ or ‘Big Bang Theory,’” Frons said. Right now, it’s evident the absence of a comprehensive metric for measuring views across services is leaving viewers, analysts and creators in the dark. And with little reason to be more forthcoming, it’s unlikely these ad-free services will change. “Because streaming services are so new comparatively to pay TV, there is little regulation or transparency across services. It offers streaming services more flexibility in how they highlight success if their service is succeeding,” IHC Markit analyst Sarah Henschel said. “If as an industry, we can come together to define paid subs, churn rates, various view definitions, etc. there will be a much clearer picture of what strategies work best. Unfortunately, there is little incentivization for companies to release this data on their own without a great third party equalizer.” Tony Maglio and Tim Baysinger contributed to this report.