Whenever a TV show takes over the Internet and seems to be the only thing anyone is talking about, like Girls or Mad Men or The Wire, it’s worth remembering that the quantity of virtual column inches written about a very good TV show are usually inversely proportional to its actual popularity with viewers.
Those three shows, by the way, had lousy ratings. Sure, they were each a “success” if your criteria for success is a committed fan base who will remember those programs fondly for the rest of their lives.
But if you want to make money in broadcasting, stick with “Duck Dynasty” or “The Bachelor”. That’s what keeps the lights on.
So, how popular is “Making a Murderer”? If Twitter is your guide, “Making a Murderer” is bigger than David Bowie’s last record and “The Hunger Games” combined.
It’s an Internet phenomenon.
But while the kind of person who uses Twitter is a wonderful snapshot for a certain type of discourse, they are also not the average Canadian who watches four hours of video per day, three hours and 18 minutes of which are spent absorbing traditional TV, plus half an hour watching “grey zone” video like discs or YouTube or torrented material, with a mere 12 minutes on average dedicated to over-the-top services like Netflix and HBO Canada.
That last number, perhaps, tells you everything you need to know about the popularity of Netflix.
It’ll be a jaw-dropping disappointment for cord-cutters, who are convinced that the “disruption” and/or death of traditional television is happening right now.
But it gives you a ballpark idea of how very, very far away over-the-top video actually is from killing off legacy TV. Just because you want something to be true doesn’t mean it’s actually true.
When Netflix starts showing live sports, maybe then we’ll have a conversation about streaming video killing off legacy television.
For fun, Cantech Letter contacted Netflix to ask how many Canadians were watching “Making a Murderer”, thinking perhaps that they’d consider an international comparison with the United States an interesting angle for a story.
We got back a curt “We don’t release that data,” which is what we expected, given that Netflix can appear in front of a CRTC commission and reply in exactly those words when asked the same question directly by Jean-Pierre Blais.
Last week, NBCUniversal president of research and media development Alan Wurtzel tore the lid off the Internet when he said, “The reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated,” while offering a “reality check” to the media at the Television Critic Association’s winter press tour.
Presenting data collected by Symphony Advanced Media, Wurtzel shrugged off the binge-watching habits of Netflix watchers, noting that after they were done pigging out on an entire season of some Internet show in their pyjamas, they eventually returned to “watching TV the way that God intended. The impact goes away.”
His remarks, predictably, caused an uproar on the Internet, not so much because they’re inaccurate, which they aren’t really, but because tonally he comes off like Tony Montana in Scarface or some low-level drug dealer evaluating the cognitive abilities of his clientele.
“They’ll be back on their hands and knees,” he seems to be saying, fearing perhaps that Netflix might be the Marlo to NBC’s Avon Barksdale. That’s a Wire reference, folks, Marlo being the young, new, ruthless drug dealer who feels no need to play by the rules or honour the code observed by the older drug dealers, who all regard Marlo as a punk not to be taken seriously.
Anyway, Wurtzel’s comments were widely derided by people on the Internet, partly for his “the way that God intended” tone, but also because people on the Internet mistakenly believe that he is the voice of a near-dead industry struggling to swim in a rising tide of Netflix disruption.
“The reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated” – NBCUniversal’s Alan Wurtzel
Unfortunately for people on the Internet, AdWeek has followed up the contested statistics cited by Wurtzel and offered an even more detailed picture of the actual numbers around Netflix viewership versus traditional TV viewership.
The results aren’t pretty if you’re Netflix. If you’re Alan Wurtzel on the other hand, they look great.
Top of the pile, as usual, is “Big Bang Theory” with 10.61 million viewers. Only Netflix’s highest rated show, Jessica Jones at 4.81 million, comes within 1.5 million viewers of traditional television’s tenth rated show, CBS’s Supergirl at 6.24 million.
And once you’ve gotten past the fourth most popular streamed show, Amazon’s “Man in the High Castle” (which is excellent, by the way), the numbers drop off precipitously, from a respectable-ish 2.12 million to the number-five rated “Wet Hot American Summer” (which is not excellent, by the way) at a mere 832,000.
Dig a little deeper in to those “viewership” numbers, and the probability that Netflix’s ratings are even lower than they appear rise sharply, given that a “view” is counted somewhat differently than for standard television.
By contrast, Mad Men, which you’ll remember was a flop by the standards of the television industry, rated 3.3 million viewers for its final episode, and tended to float in the 1.5-to-2 million range on average.
So even a show with meh ratings, brilliant as it was, still pretty much crushes almost anything on Netflix, other than its water cooler flagship shows.
One thing that Netflix has become good at, though, is inserting itself into the conversation, not only on Twitter, but also around awards season.
“House of Cards” was nominated for 33 Emmy Awards, and “Orange is the New Black” for 16.
But awards are a lot like Twitter. They push the interests of a very particular group of people who aren’t particularly representative of reality. Take the Academy Awards, for example, 94% of the judges for which are white, mostly male, and a prosciutto-thin slice of the upper class.
Now remind me, was the new Star Wars film nominated for any Academy Awards? Well, obviously it must have been. That movie was huge. It’s up for, um, for editing. And for sound mixing. For visual effects. And also for music.
Which is the same as saying, no, the highest grossing film of all time was not nominated for any Academy Awards. None that matter anyway.
The film Carol, on the other hand, has loads of Academy Award nominations, meaning more nominations than Star Wars in the categories that people actually care about, while taking in not even 1% of the absurd bank earned by Star Wars.
All that to say that awards, and Twitter, while they’re great for the people who are directly involved in them, are not particularly reliable yardsticks by which to measure success in the one metric that ensures that the whole flimsy edifice doesn’t collapse: eyeballs, otherwise known as revenue generating capacity.
So, how popular is “Making a Murderer”? Only Netflix knows for certain. There are some educated guesses out there, but in the scheme of things, it hardly matters.
Is it any good? Yes, it is. It’s very good. So it’s got that, at least. It will likely be nominated for several awards.
The other benefit of being a privately held company is that you control the message. It’s only when a company is made to be transparent that everyone suddenly sees whether or not the emperor is actually wearing clothes.
West Coast editor for Vulture Joe Adalian, when asked if he thought “Making a Murderer” might come close to HBO’s 18 million strong audience for last season’s “Game of Thrones” finale, diplomatically told Postcrescent.com, “It wouldn’t be impossible for Netflix to do that, but honestly, that’s all speculation. It could just be 1,000 people in the media watching it and talking about it on Twitter.”
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