Netflix doesn’t share its viewing figures. In fact, it seems to be one of the closest guarded secrets in the business. And, it doesn’t have to. Netflix relies on subscribers paying a monthly subscription, not the budgets of advertisers impressed by big numbers.
So while we know Netflix has more than 44 million subscribers in 41 countries (33 million in the US, 11 million non-US), we don’t know whether 10 or 10,000,000 people are watching specific movies and shows available on its platform.
House of Cards made headlines with its Valentine’s Day drop of season two earlier this month. But how many actually watched it? Sure the UK has more than 1.5 million subscribers according to recent estimates, but what percentage of them are Frank Underwood fans?
It has seemed at times like an unanswerable question, and one Netflix hoped to keep that way.
However, Procera Networks in the US has been doing something rather clever. Reportedly using “several worldwide broadband networks” to analyse Netflix traffic, Procera produced a whole bunch of telling stats about the popularity of House of Cards season two in its opening weekend.
Of all 44 million subscribers, Procera reports that between 5-10% watched at least one episode of the Kevin Spacey-fronted political drama in the first weekend it was available. This puts viewing figures at between 2,200,000 and 4,400,000.
This of course is difficult to compare to standard "overnight viewing figures" based on a single showing of an episode. The nature of streaming means that one episode could have been watched as soon as the season "dropped" or at the very end of that weekend.
While the release date gives fans the opportunity to watch an episode at the same time, this isn’t traditional miss it, miss out ‘event telly’.
However, what is interesting for Netflix, which is blazing a trail in eat all you can TV, Procera found that 2% of US subscribers watched all thirteen episodes of the series in that first weekend. That’s 660,000 people.
Thirteen episodes? That’s almost twelve hours!
While Netflix won’t provide a European subscription figure, the report suggests that 1% of those in Europe also finished the entire season.
Those dipping a toe in saw an average of five episodes consumed in Europe, compared to just three in the US.
This is certainly good news for CEO Reed Hastings, who has spoken out about his disinterest in the standard TV model of waiting a week for a new episode. As he calls it "managed dissatisfaction".
“We’re killing managed dissatisfaction – we’re redefining the way people watch TV, we’re sticking two fingers up at the schedulers”," Hastings tells GQ.
The figures unfortunately don’t give a clear indication on the number of UK subscribers tuning in to this series, or indeed the provider’s other content.
As such, how the first episode of House of Cards season two would compare to the finale of an ITV primetime "event TV" drama like Broadchurch, which pulled in more than 9 million viewers for its finale and gripped the nation every Monday for eights weeks, is still unclear.
Netflix is streaming an estimated billion hours or more of acquired programming every month. However, it’s still investing in original content; around 10% of its spend according to a recent company report - $100m for twenty six episodes of House of Cards. And Netflix is understood to be spending around $3bn on TV and film rights to grow its library further this year.
Netflix is using its users habits to determine this content. After all, the hallmark of Netflix isn't just about offering viewers the chance to watch an entire season in one weekend. It offers specifically tailored content to its individual users. If you've been enjoying a courtroom drama, you'll soon find another to dive into. Watch three films with Brad Pitt in and you'll find another in your "recommended for you" section.
Plus, Netflix offers its users the chance to rate its content via a star system. This provides valuable insight into subscriber tastes for when its looking for a new project to back. This isn't a company sinking huge money into a political drama like House of Cards for a reason - it has a pretty good idea there is a call for it. In some ways you could argue its commissioning methods are far more scientific than traditional linear broadcasters because of the detailed information about usage it has at its disposal.
Todd Yellin, vice president of product innovation and the man behind the software that recommends programmes based on user history, explains:
“We own the Netflix customer experience from the moment they sign up, for the whole time they are with us, across TV, phone and laptop,” telling the Guardian, “Getting to know a user, millions of them, and what they play. If they play one title, what did they play after, before, what did they abandon after five minutes?
"It is a beautiful thing being a subscription service. We have nothing to do with advertising, it becomes less about ratings. The days of pure popularity [as a marker for success] are over. It leaves the individual quirks and quirks of people's taste in the dust. User data helps us decide to initially buy the show and to renew it for another season. Traditional networks and cable networks don't know that stuff."
So although we still haven't got to the bottom of exactly how many people are watching House of Cards (or Arrested Development, Orange is the New Black or other Netflix originals), what is clear is that video on demand is a serious force to be reckoned with.
With Amazon announcing they will revive axed BBC series Ripper Street and continued rumours of Microsoft's Xbox making new and classic TV series' through their production houses in LA and Soho, it seems there's a long way to go in the VoD story, and so far we've probably only just seen the opening credits...