Turns out we weren’t the only ones who spent the holidays binging on Netflix. The streaming giant announced Friday that more than 45 million Netflix accounts — 45,037,125, to be exact — streamed its original runaway hit movie and meme machine Bird Box in its first week, reportedly making it the “best first 7 days ever for a Netflix film.”
But while a quick dive into the #BirdBox hashtag leaves little doubt that the movie was a smash success and drew plenty of online attention, it’s worth considering the context of this announcement. Netflix most definitely collects massive amounts of viewer data — how else would it know what kind of original content to develop or give you those hyper-specific recommendations? — but the company is notoriously tight-lipped about its streaming numbers. In fact, while traditional movies and television have independent metrics to track and verify viewership (think box office revenue and Nielsen ratings), CNN reports that Netflix doesn’t have any kind of third-party oversight reviewing its user activity.
This stat about Bird Box’s 45 million viewers is truly mind-boggling — after all, that’s more than a third of all of Netflix’s 118 million global subscribers. But besides this basic number crunching, the announcement essentially lives in a vacuum of sorts. How does Bird Box compare to other Netflix original films? What counts as a “view” — does an account have to watch the entire movie for it to be counted, or is it just a matter of pressing play once? And what does this data mean for Netflix’s decision-making when it comes to future content?
But Netflix isn’t giving up any answers, something many journalists, filmmakers, and entertainment industry leaders have rightly pointed out.
So many questions:— Franklin Leonard (@franklinleonard) December 28, 2018
1. Best by how much?
2. How does that compare with % of possible Netflix accounts?
3. Distribution by country?
4. How many watched all of it?
5. Estimate of people who watched it per account?
6. How many accounts watched it, in full, more than once? https://t.co/XSiG6jAHdO
You can believe (as I do) that BIRD BOX is a big hit with a cultural impact *and* that Netflix’s numbers don’t tell enough of a story and shouldn’t be flaunted without context or independent verification. Both can be true.— Frank Pallotta (@frankpallotta) December 29, 2018
There’s no doubt that Netflix will continue to churn out new content and shape our popular culture — as the adage goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and Netflix is definitely not broke. But as the company’s number-tracking becomes increasingly opaque — in a twist worthy of an episode of Black Mirror — it’s worth remembering Netflix knows exactly what you’re up to on their site, even if you don’t know it yourself.