Netflix ranks the popularity of its originals among the most popular charts of all time, but last month it quietly changed the way it measures the viewing time of some shows. The statistics of these shows have swelled dramatically.
Why it matters
In order for Netflix to market a cheaper layer of ads, it must win over advertisers, and its measurement takes on new meaning when advertisers become part of the equation.
What will be next
Stranger Things, which released seven episodes last week and will release two more on July 1, is almost certain to be rated Netflix’s biggest hit to date due to this rule change, which plays in favor of the show.
Stranger Things returned on Friday, and by the end of the summer, Netflix will almost certainly declare the last season of the retro sci-fi series its biggest hit yet. But the victory in Stranger Things 4, which is to top, for example, Bridgerton and Squid Game, was secured weeks before a single subscriber streamed a second, when Netflix quietly revised its own rules of popularity.
Last month’s change has already inflated statistics for shows like Ozark and Money Heist. Now it’s Stranger Things 4’s turn.
When the final numbers come, Stranger Things 4 is likely to overshadow Bridgerton and Squid Game in Netflix’s most popular all-time charts, based on the total number of hours tracked, the charts that Netflix updates each week in the Top 10 Netflix. All three shows are extremely well watched worldwide. But among them, only Stranger Things will enjoy Netflix, which counts its “watch time” twice as long. Instead of adding up the tracking hours for the first 28 days since the release, as Netflix did for Bridgerton and Squid Game, Netflix will collect Stranger Things 4 views in a total of 56 days thanks to its two-part release schedule.
While these charts can be dismissed without major consequences, they are still the most direct data available that make people — whether they’re Wall Street suits, Hollywood insiders, or viewers like you — the biggest titles on the world’s largest streaming service. They provide investors with a measure of Netflix’s competitiveness, can help Netflix gain talent, and create noise that can make you watch something you would not otherwise see.
But measuring Netflix is going to have much bigger consequences than. In order for Netflix to offer you a cheaper level of advertising, it will need to extend its metering beyond the tracking period and be more transparent to gain advertisers, experts say.
Netflix has gone so far as to release any data it wants on its own terms, said Dallas Lawrence, communications and brand manager Samba TV, a television researcher and ad measurement company. That will change when Netflix has to sell to advertisers.
“Buyers will not allow Netflix to evaluate their own homework,” Lawrence said.
The surveillance time turned upside down
When Netflix launched its Top 10 website in November, it unlocked an unprecedented amount of viewership data. The site details the most watched titles of the service in the previous week and the number of hours they were viewed, both worldwide and in more than 90 individual countries. For its most obscene titles, Netflix updates a set of Top Charts that rank the most watched originals of all time.
And to get the show or movie on the charts of all time, Netflix is watching 28 days since its premiere to collect hours of watching.
Bridgerton’s last season, for example, is Netflix’s most watched English show with 656.3 million hours. Squid Game, South Korea’s groundbreaking dystopian thriller, is Netflix’s most-watched show in any language, with 1.65 billion hours watched in a 28-day window.
These 28-day hours of footage were the same for each film and television season, until May 10. Netflix then quietly adjusted the rules to give some shows 56 days – twice as long – to gather views. For all series, which release their season in two “volumes” on different dates, the shooting hours run 28 days after the first batch of episodes and then run again for another 28 days after the second batch. Netflix counts volume episode views only during the first 28 days of a volume.
However, shows like Stranger Things 4 with seven episodes and two more on July 1st still have 56 days to generate watch hours toward their ratings. And because the release of the second installment may come soon after the first installment, the first 28-day window can potentially include a re-viewing of the first batch as fans catch up to the second. In the case of Stranger Things 4, fans who immediately watched the first episode could revisit these episodes and refresh themselves in anticipation of the second episode – each of these plays before June 23 would count.
Shows like Bridgerton and Squid Game, which followed Netflix’s convention of releasing the entire season at the same time, were still stuck in 28 days.
Netflix basically revealed this change by updating its fine print. Judging by the archived screenshots of the Top 10 website, Netflix added two sentences to its methodological statement on May 10. Netflix did not reveal otherwise that it had changed its methodology for ranking the most popular.
When Netflix commented on this article, it referred to the methodology on its website.
Stranger Things 4 was already certain that it would be a blockbuster by Netflix standards. His last season is one of the most watched Netflix programs ever, although it came out when Netflix had two-thirds of the subscribers it has now. The three-year break has created a demand from fans and this season is much longer than the others. (It’s also much longer than Squid Game or Bridgerton. Its first episode runs an hour longer than the entire Squid Game or Bridgerton last season, and Stranger Things 4 still has nearly four hours on July 1.)
However, May’s change in methodology put the package in favor of Stranger Things. It has already generated 286.8 million hours in the first three days of availability. With 53 more days on the clock, it needs to generate less than a tenth of it a day to accumulate enough tracking time to become number one.
The rule change has already inflated the time of watching several other shows. In the top 10 of Netflix’s charts, several programs appeared at once or were ranked much higher, with hundreds of millions of hours suddenly added to their numbers.
Money Heist is a successful Spanish thriller series also known as La Casa de Papel. His latest series was released in two volumes, with five episodes landing on September 1 and the last five episodes arriving on December 1. Following the change in methodology in May, the follow-up time more than doubled. Money Heist is now the second most watched Netflix show of all time after Squid Game, regardless of language. They didn’t even make it into the top 10 before the rules changed.
Other programs also experienced a great boom. Fantasy police procedural Lucifer released half of his fifth season in 2020 and the other half almost a year later. Lucifer has been missing from Netflix’s Most Popular charts since its launch, but in May it suddenly appeared as Netflix’s 7th Most Viewed show in any language. The latest series of the drama Ozark, released partly on January 21st and partly on April 29th, took three more weeks of streaming after the original 28-day period to reach the top 10 in English.
The top 10 Netflix websites still characterize all of these shows as hours watched during the “first 28 days on Netflix.”
To strengthen the credibility of its statistics, Netflix hired an accounting firm, EY – formerly known as Ernst & Young, one of the world’s largest accounting firms – to verify its data. But EY completed its first Netflix report in February, long before Netflix revised its methodology. And the EY report was a light check called a review, which essentially accepts measurement criteria as defined by Netflix and then verifies that the data adheres to those rules. Netflix has no existing plans for further accounting control.
Classification of own homework
Netflix has been notoriously quiet about its ratings for years. Beau Willimon, the creator of the House of Cards, who put Netflix’s original program on the map, once said the company would not even share viewership metrics with it. However, since 2018, Netflix has become more open about the popularity of its shows and movies, culminating in its Top 10 website.
In order for Netflix to start offering you a cheaper level of advertising, it really needs to get advertisers – and advertisers won’t follow Netflix’s numbers. Because television advertising is so expensive, brands and agencies want measurements comparable across services so they can know what they’re getting on Netflix versus Paramount Plus versus Disney Plus, said Needham senior analyst Laura Martin.
Netflix “can do strange things, such as introducing a new measurement,” added Martin, who has been calling Netflix for years to add advertising. “But it would slow down advertiser acceptance.”
Advertisers have traditionally rated TV shows based on how many people have tuned them. “As we enter this new phase, transparency regarding viewership data will be crucial, especially on ‘closed’ platforms such as Netflix,” said Anjali Midha, co-founder and CEO. Diesel Labs, a media news company. Audience will naturally remain important, she added, as will demographic, psychographic and other metrics of tracking behavior.
But Netflix’s own reputation as the gold standard for TV streaming will play in its favor, Lawrence said.
“The streaming has historically been full of countless … sites that still look like the Wild West, full of risky content,” he said.
Advertisers can welcome the safety and scope of Netflix, although its own measurement rules still shoot sideways.
Correction, 6:07 PT: An older version of this story suggested that Netflix could count views of all episodes of split-season shows over a full 56 days. Netflix only counts episode views within 28 days of their release, but split-season shows have two 28-day periods – a total of 56 days – to accumulate viewing time.