Why New Streaming Releases Are Constantly Breaking Viewership Records

Viewership data and other information about the popularity of new streaming content isn’t always easily available, yet streaming platforms seem to report record-breaking performance for every new release. Without the transparency of traditional box office numbers or TV ratings, the data provided by streaming services like Netflix about the performance of their new releases is often the best indicator of the success of a given movie or show, but how reliable are those claims?

When movies are released in theaters, the revenue from each ticket purchase is reported as a combined box office figure, while rating surveys like Nielson have been consistent indicators of what people were watching on TV. Even straight-to-home media releases and pay-per-view VOD purchases are all reported as quantifiable measurements of financial success. With the advent of streaming, viewership data is now only properly measurable by the streaming platforms themselves, but with a lack of transparency or wider context around this limited data, it can be hard to know what these reports mean outside of the marketing benefit to streamers claiming a new release is its most popular and set new viewership records.


Related: Stranger Things Proves Netflix and Streaming Can Break TV/Movie Rules

While it makes sense that many new releases would see bigger performances, constant reports of record-breaking performance don’t always seem entirely practical, especially when the data used to make these claims isn’t totally clear. There’s a number of factors contributing to streaming performance, from positive spin in reports from streamers to growing content budgets, so here’s why they’re able to make these claims and what they actually indicate.

Streaming Data is (Mostly) Pointless

Since streamers don’t report full viewership metrics for every release, and the numbers that are reported can be subject to odd caveats such as Netflix counting anything more than 2 minutes as a view. There are a number of third-party providers of streaming data, but even those figures don’t provide a full picture. Companies like Parrot Analytics compile detailed reports of content demand based on social media engagement and other factors while others like Samba TV provide viewership estimates based on data collected only from a subset of consumers with particular smart TVs who opt-in to Samba’s data collection. The data is a good indicator of proportional popularity, but as a highly specific audience subset, there’s no way to know if it’s truly a representative sample of total viewership.

Even if streamers were more transparent, it would be hard to measure content performance against any media from other platforms since they all have different-sized subscriber bases and content media libraries. Box office data is truly representative of head-to-head movie performance in the same market, but that same parity can’t be achieved with streaming data when platforms like Hulu have less than 50 million subscribers and Netflix has over 220 million subscribers.

Streaming Platform Growth Benefits New Releases

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Not only does every streaming platform have a different subscriber base, but those subscriber bases are all growing fast enough to skew data over time. Netflix, for example, grew by 37 million subscribers in 2020 and 18 million in 2021, meaning its top-performing content could see millions of additional views compared to content from previous years, whether it’s viewed by an equivalent percentage of subscribers or not.

Related: How Netflix Has Been Preparing For Its Big Inevitable Subscriber Drop

Of course, subscriber growth and viewership growth are all good signs, but it muddies nuances available in data like box office where more details like the scale of the release, audience demographics, and week-over-week performance are all measurable. Since the only data officially reported by streamers tends to be data that makes a new release look as popular as possible, the inevitable new viewership record is a clear easy win. This is visible in Netflix’s limited data released about its top 10 movies, where Red Notice and Don’t Look Up, both released at the end of 2021are the two most viewed movies; however, the list is ranked based on hours viewed in the first 28 days of release, so movies like Martin Scorsese’s three-and-a-half-hour The Irishman sitting alongside The Adam Projectwhich has half the runtime, also skews the list.

New Streaming Movies and Shows Are Getting Bigger Budgets

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Even if streaming data is questionable, there are some more logical reasons for new movies frequently setting new viewership records, as platform growth should also (ideally) translate to better content. While Netflix recently began drastic cost-cutting measures in response to a drop in subscriber growth, many of its newer movies are getting bigger and bigger budgets than before. As subscriber growth increases, streamers have more justification for greenlighting bigger budgets, with former WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar predicting streaming platforms could eventually see movies with budgets as big as $1 billion.

Netflix’s current top-ranked movie (Red Notice) had a reported budget of $200 million and featured some of the world’s biggest stars in Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, and Gal Gadot. The platform snagged Joe and Anthony Russo to direct The Gray Man, another $200 million budget movie, hot off their success in the MCU, making Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame – two of the highest-grossing movies of all time. Like Red NoticeThe Gray Man has a star-studded cast featuring Chris Evans, Ryan Gosling, and Ana de Armas. Bigger budgets don’t always mean bigger performance, as shown by Don’t Look Up ranking as Netflix’s 2nd most viewed movie of all time with a $75 million budget. With a cast full of big-name Oscar winners like Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, and Meryl Streep as well as plenty of Oscar nominations of its own, there were other factors contributing to its performance as well.

At the end of the day, people aren’t wrong for questioning the nature of streaming data and streamer-released reports that seem to claim new releases are constantly hitting new benchmarks, but at the same time, more transparent data about subscriber growth and bigger content budgets validates these claims. Streamers are getting more open with performance data, and better third-party reports from companies like Nielson are helping to give more insight into content performance, but unless there’s more parity between subscriber bases as the streaming market gets more saturated, the data won’t have much more meaning than the numbers reported by the streamers themselves.

Next: The Batman Makes Box Office & Streaming Comparisons Entirely Pointless

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