Why Netflix’s New Top 10 Lists Are More About Marketing Than Transparency

Netflix has been criticized for keeping its viewership data under lock and key

Netflix is finally allowing its users to see what others are watching on its popular platform. But that does not mean Netflix is loosening its ironclad grip on viewership data.

On Monday, Netflix launched a new “Top 10” feature that lists the “most popular” TV series and movies on the streaming service, which will be updated daily. But is it a bid to be more transparent by showing exactly what the most-consumed content is each day, or just another marketing ploy for its own stuff?

Since Netflix doesn’t put any numbers behind it, that question may be unanswerable.

Netflix has been criticized for keeping its viewership data under lock and key, even to some of those who work on its films and TV shows. The company only releases carefully-curated data when it deems necessary. This criticism comes from fans too, who wonder why their favorite shows — “Tuca and Bertie” and “One Day at a Time” are two recent examples — get canceled and others do not. When NBC cancels a show, it can point to poor ratings that everyone can see, whereas Netflix essentially tells its customers to take them at their word.

These new Top 10 lists give off the illusion that Netflix is being more transparent, by showing its customers what everyone else is watching. But Netflix is still the gatekeeper. And while the streaming company says that two minutes of viewing is all it needs to decide that someone intentionally made a choice to watch something, it is still a small sample size. There is so much content on Netflix and the streaming service still curates what it puts out in front of its viewers.

This is done to make it easier so its viewers don’t have to spend hours scrolling through a seemingly endless list of content, but it can also be deployed as a marketing tool. How many users had new fare like “Locke and Key” or “Love is Blind” right in front of them when they signed on?

Previously, Netflix counted a “view” as anyone who watched 70% of a movie or one episode of a show, but at the beginning of this year, it changed its methodology. Now, it would count all views for those who watched at least 2 minutes, which it argued was “long enough to indicate the choice was intentional.” The streaming service added that it “made more sense” to change how it counts views considering the “widely varying lengths” of its shows and movies.

Netflix did this for its lists of “most popular” movies and TV shows of 2019 last December, which proceeded its official measurement change. An individual with knowledge of Netflix’s methodology told TheWrap that these new daily top 10 lists will incorporate those same metrics, and be updated at 11:30 a.m. PT for all territories.

Shortening the length of time to count a view to two minutes allows them to add those who may have sampled a new show among others who watched it all the way through.

That makes it easier for Netflix to tout something like the Ben Affleck-Anne Hathaway film “The Last Thing He Wanted.” The Netflix original was its second-most viewed content among popular TV shows like “Better Call Saul” and “The Office” when the top 10 list debuted Monday. But this works both ways, in that it gives creators their own mechanism to wield.

The co-creators of Netflix’s new comedy “Gentified” have turned to social media in an attempt to mobilize fans to drive up the show’s ranking, which currently sits at #5 on its all-content list. “You guys. We moved up to #5 out of ALL CONTENT ON NETFLIX! WHAT! Please keep sharing! Let’s get to #1 by Friday so you can let @netflix definitively know y’all want that season 2!” wrote co-creator Marvin Lemus.

During an industry conference last October, Ted Sarandos, the company’s chief content officer, explained that he was “opposed” to releasing any ratings data — after all, ratings only exist to set advertising rates, of which Netflix has none.

“I think the ratings wars were negative on creative. Everyone’s focused on opening weekend or the premiere episode viewing forced entertainment companies to be more careful. I thought the longer we stayed out of the fight the better,” he explained, adding that comparing viewership on streaming to traditional TV is not apples to apples. “Because you know it’s going to be there, you may not watch it in the first weekend.”

So why did Netflix change its mind? Sarandos said that it “helps contextualize” what the streaming service believes is a big audience, noting the company’s increasing role in setting the agenda in Hollywood.

Jennifer Maas contributed to this story. 

Tim Baysinger

Tim Baysinger

TV Reporter • tim.baysinger@thewrap.com • Twitter: @tim_bays


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