Netflix Is A Ratings Winner

NBCUniversal president of research and media development Alan Wurtzel got a bit cheeky with Netflix this week, leaking some preliminary data from Symphony, the network-backed rating system (still in beta) that uses audio-recognition technology to measure viewership of unrated OTT channels like Netflix.

According to Wurtzel, Symphony measured the average audience in the 18-49 demo for each episode of Netflix original series within 35 days of their debut on the service between September and December, and over that time Netflix’s most-watched show was “Jessica Jones,” which averaged piper-orange-is-the-new-black4.8 million viewers per episode. “Master of None” was second, with an average audience of 3.9 million, while “Narcos” pulled in 3.2 million per episode. “Orange is the New Black” remains Netflix’s most-watched series, according to Wurtzel, but the current season was released in June and most of the viewing happened during the summer. During the period covered by the study, OITNB averaged 644,00 viewers per episode.

In comparison, the most watched scripted series in the 18-49 demo on linear TV channels during the 2014-2015 TV season, in the live-plus 7-day window, AMC’s “The Walking Dead” averaged 13.2 million viewers per week, followed by Fox’s “Empire” at 9.0 million and CBS’ “Big Bang Theory” at 8.3 million.

Wurtzel noted that viewing of Netflix originals is highly concentrated due to binge-watching. By the third week after a show debuts on Netflix “people are [back] watching TV the way that God intended” (i.e. via traditional linear channels), he said. “The impact goes away.”

Wurtzel’s take is that the numbers demonstrate that Netflix viewing poses little threat to linear broadcasters, at least for now. “I don’t believe there’s enough stuff on Netflix that is broad enough and consistent enough to affect us in a meaningful way on a consistent basis,” he told the Television Critics Association during the winter press tour.

What Wurtzel didn’t say is that Netflix’s top original series are attracting those viewership numbers from a smaller potential universe than linear channels can reach. As of mid-2015, Netflix had 42 million U.S. subscribers (Netflix is scheduled to release full-year numbers next week). At the same point, AMC, home of “The Walking Dead,” had 94.9 million subscribers in the U.S., while over-the-air channels like CBS and Fox, home to “Big Bang Theory” and “Empire,” respectively, can reach up to 116 million U.S. households, according to Nielsen.

In other words, the 4.8 million viewers of “Jessica Jones” represent 11.4 percent of Netflix’s total subscriber base. “Master of None” captures 9.3 percent and “Narcos” grabs 7.6 percent.

Only “The Walking Dead,” which is watched by 14 percent of AMC’s audience has comparable penetration. “Empire” and “Big Bang Theory” attract 7.8 percent and 7.2 percent, respectively, of their network’s potential audience.

If you were to scale Netflix’s potential audience up to the level of AMC’s subscriber base, the audience for “Jessica Jones” could be as high as 10 million viewers. Projected up to broadcast scale it would be 12 or 13 million. And “Jessica Jones” isn’t even Netflix’s most popular series, just the most watched from September to December. And in a purely a la carte world, who’s to say how many subscribers Fox and CBS would have?

The comparison isn’t entirely apt, of course. There’s no guarantee, for instance, that the next 50 million U.S. subscribers would watch its original series at the same ratio as current subscribers. In fact, they almost certainly wouldn’t; late adopters, by definition, are less avid users than early adopters.But the numbers do show that, with its intimate knowledge of its audience and their tastes, Netflix has gotten pretty good at delivering the programming its audience wants, and would have the capability to be an absolute ratings machine should it ever choose to go the advertising route.

Given digital’s targeting advantages, moreover, Netflix could presumably charge higher CPMs than linear channels can command, increasing its share of the advertising pie beyond what the gross audience data would dictate.

That’s not to suggest that Netflix should go the advertising route. Introducing ads into its programs would fundamentally change its value proposition for subscribers, with hard-to-predict consequences (remember Qwikster?). But clearly, without even really trying to, Netflix has gotten pretty good at the linear networks’ own game.

That may not be enough to affect linear networks “on a consistent basis” now, but it ought to be enough to worry them.