Pasadena, Calif. • This probably won’t come as a surprise to you, but television networks, stations and streamers lie all the time about how successful their shows are. When you see an ad telling you a show is a “hit,” remember there’s no standard for that term. So it can be an exaggeration, if not an outright lie.
When you hear a show is “Tuesday’s most-watched new comedy,” that may be true. It may also be true that there is one other new Tuesday comedy. And when a station proclaims a newscast is “Utah’s fastest growing,” that can be because its audience is so small that even a small increase registers as a large percentage.
The theory behind all this is that programmers believe that if they can convince you a show is popular, you’ll watch. Ratings are spun all the time to make bad news look good and good news look great. It’s not unusual.
What was unusual last week was FX Networks President John Landgraf calling out Netflix as liars, liars, pants on fire to members of the Television Critics Association.
He said the streaming service has “selectively” released viewership numbers for a few original programs. And that, at first glance, marks a departure for Netflix, which has consistently refused to tell us how many people are watching its shows.
Landgraf mildly mocked Netflix for putting out numbers that “look really big and promote the notion that many shows on their platform are gigantic hits that are watched more than shows on broadcast, premium or basic cable.” And he pointed to the amazing coincidence that Netflix announced that two of its new original series, “You” and “Sex Education,” both “will be watched by over 40 million member households.” He added: “Sounds like they have a huge hit on their hands. However, if you dig a little deeper, Netflix is not telling you the whole story.”
While Netflix’s numbers don’t hold up, Landgraf’s explanation of them does, for the most part. To summarize, Netflix touts the number of households that stream 70 percent of an episode; when the same average-audience standards are applied to Netflix as to ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and FX, the numbers fall to about 8 million for “You” and about 3 million for “Sex Education.”
(Netflix correctly points out that Nielsen doesn’t measure all the ways its programming is watched — on various devices outside the home — but Nielsen doesn’t measure all the ways viewers watch any TV outlet.)
“An average audience of 40 million would not only make ‘You’ and ‘Sex Education’ the two most-watched shows on television, it would give Netflix two other gigantic hits to join their one true breakout, which is ‘Stranger Things,’” Landgraf said. “But 40 million people are not watching.”
He gave the streaming service credit for its hits, but shot down the idea that Netflix is better at making them than anyone else; or that it has “a magic bullet of guaranteed commercial success that has eluded everyone else since the creation of television”; or that “the vast majority of shows on their platform are working and that they have the best batting average.”
“Creative and commercial failure in this business is unavoidable and no one is exempt from that reality,” Landgraf said, adding, “The list of shows on their platform that would be considered commercial failures is long, and their true batting average” is “unimpressive.”
Landgraf was not just firing shots across Netflix’s bow; he was reminding members of the TCA not to get sucked in by news releases touting inaccurate numbers.
“If any publications printed the 40 million household number for ‘You’ and ‘Sex Education,’ their readers got the wildly inaccurate impression that those shows are as successful as ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘Stranger Things,’” he said.
Why does he care that Netflix is lying?
“I just don’t like the notion that any one entity gets to decide what is true and tell you what is true and make their own news without your being able to check the facts or ask questions or do what journalists do,” Landgraf said. “That bothers me on a fundamental level.”