Has a competitor revealed Netflix’s secret viewing figures?

NBC call for "perspective" when it comes to their online rival, but should their suggested figures be taken with a pinch of salt?

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US network NBC claims to have revealed the viewing numbers of many major Netflix shows, in a broadside designed to put their online competitor’s ratings in “perspective”. 

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Netflix is famous for keeping the number of actual viewers of its shows to itself, arguing that, as they do not carry advertising, there is no need to engage in the ‘arms race’.

However, this annoys many people in traditional broadcasting, who find themselves fielding questions about whether TV is becoming ‘irrelevant’ while their online competitors are free not to publish numbers.

Now NBC have struck back. Alan Wurtzel, an executive at NBCUniversal, has revealed their own estimates for several high-profile Netflix shows, as well as Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. 

According to the figures reported by Variety, in the period between September and December, the average episode of Jessica Jones averaged 4.8 million viewers in adults aged 18-49, while Amazon’s Man in the High Castle averaged 2.1 million. 

During the same period Orange is the New Black – which both Netflix and NBC agree is the streaming network’s most-watched show – averaged 644,000 viewers, although, unlike Jessica Jones, its new series aired back in June, so fall-off is to be expected.

“The notion that they are replacing broadcast TV may not be quite accurate,” Wurtzel claimed. The presentation was titled ‘Netflix Reality Check’.

The figures were gathered by tech firm Symphony, which measures TV viewing using audio content recognition technology loaded onto volunteers’ phones – in essence an app that ‘listens’ to what they’re watching. The company currently samples 15,000 people. 

However, there are reasons to take these numbers with a pinch of salt, not least because NBC have a clear motive in arguing that online broadcasting is not replacing traditional television.

Furthermore in an interview with RadioTimes.com last year, Netflix’s Head of Content Ted Sarandos dismissed attempts by agencies such as Nielsen to track online viewing figures through similar techniques.

“They don’t seem to be able to track television,” he laughed, “so I don’t know how they’re going to get this one.” 

“I honestly believe that ratings creates an arms race that has been very bad for the creativity of television. The pressure for a show to perform at a certain expectation that is completely random. It serves no purpose for us. We don’t sell advertising, we don’t negotiate for channel position, there’s no reason for us to publish the rating, it doesn’t serve any business purpose. I think it was a huge mistake for HBO back in the 1990s [to do so] with The Sopranos.”

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Pressed on whether it was a matter of professional pride, Sarandos said: “I’m very proud of the numbers, and believe me every time I’d love to do it. The way you should measure us is by our growing subscriber base, because if we fail to grow subscribers, because that is our core business, then our shows are not successful either.”