"For streamers, total views are only one part of the data that can lead to a renewal or cancellation," said UCLA lecturer and Hollywood vet Brian Frons
In Hollywood, where box-office stats and TV ratings have long been the barometer of success, how streaming giants define winning has become a crapshoot.
As long as there is no pressing need to answer to advertisers, the desire for a neutral third-party measurement to bring uniformity to what is considered a streaming "view" will remain a pipedream for those looking for more transparency.
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On the rare occasion streaming heavyweights allow a peek behind the curtain, it's often to celebrate success in a vacuum, with little or no ability for comparison. This was evident last week, when notoriously furtive Netflix announced that "Murder Mystery," the studio's Adam Sandler-Jennifer Aniston flick released earlier this month, smashed a company record with nearly 31 million accounts watching the movie in its first weekend on the service.
But what does that mean?
Netflix, as TheWrap has reported, counts a view once 70% of a show or movie has been watched. Hulu, on the other hand, counts a view once 10% of a show -- or about three minutes worth of a "Seinfeld" rerun -- has been watched, according to an employee familiar with the company's data tracking. Facebook counts a view for its Watch shows after only three seconds.
Attempts to reach Amazon and YouTube executives to understand how the companies' streaming services calculate their views were unsuccessful.
"Ratings remain critical in advertising-supported models, but for streamers, total views are only one part of the data that can lead to a renewal or cancellation," Brian Frons, former ABC Daytime president and current lecturer at UCLA's Anderson School of Management, told TheWrap.
That was reiterated by the Hulu employee familiar with the company's tracking, adding the company weighs more than just views when evaluating its programs. A viewer's willingness to move to the next episode, or binge, helps define success, along with "rewatchability," whether a series gets viewers to come back at a later date.
It's worth noting that Hulu is a bit of an island: It offers an ad-free subscription, like Netflix, for $11.99 per month. But it also has an ad-supported option, running $5.99 per month, while also offering a live TV streaming option that costs $45 per month.
Cindy Holland, Netflix's vice president of original content, said at Code Conference earlier this month that the studio's shows are judged on more than just views: Cost, its ability to reach different audiences, and critical acclaim are all factored into renewing a series. Simply going off standard benchmarks like views and budget, Holland said, would've meant Netflix's "One Day at a Time" reboot would've been canceled after its first season, rather than its third.
There have been attempts to track the audience of the streaming powerhouses, with mixed results. Marketing analytics firm Jumpshot has looked to tabulate Netflix's views, but since it cannot track connected TVs -- a significant source of Netflix's views -- its efforts has mostly been in vain. Symphony Advanced Media was another company that worked to better gauge Netflix's viewership, before going out of business in 2017.
Nielsen, the standard ratings system, said in 2017 it was finally able to measure Netflix viewing habits. Netflix disagreed, however, with a spokesperson saying at the time that Nielsen's reported data "is not accurate, not even close, and does not reflect the viewing" of its shows.
Still, Nielsen has pushed back on Netflix's measurements on occasion. When Netflix championed Sandra Bullock's "Bird Box" late last year, saying a then-record 45 million accounts streamed it in its first week, Nielsen reported its metrics tracked "only" 26 million views.
As subscription-based streaming services continue to gain traction, with Disney and Apple entering the market later this year, the industry could be moving closer towards a post-ratings landscape.
The move away from ratings-based success has shifted the power balance more towards the streaming services than content creators, Frons said. 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 added.
Ratings did, and still do, make a difference for TV networks. First, they allow for bragging rights. Wins are still gleefully shared with the press. Ratings also have been a key business metric, helping networks and advertisers determine how many people -- and just as importantly, what demographics -- are watching particular shows.
Some subscription content services have shown an increased willingness to measure its viewers. HBO, which changed the TV industry decades ago, has become more forthcoming with its viewership in recent years. But even its Nielsen data -- which doesn't include streams from HBO GO and HBO Now accounts -- fails to paint a clear picture of its reach.
Without an ad-based incentive to share how its shows are performing, streaming services have little reason to publicly reveal how many people are watching their shows, according to screenwriter Neil Landau.
"SVOD networks will continue to keep their ratings metrics opaque," said Landau, "as it's all about the bottom line of monthly subscriptions--[something that's] based on exclusivity and variety."
Matt Lopez and Tony Maglio contributed to this report.