December was a big battle in the streaming wars. The Christmas Day/end of year is becoming increasingly important to the streamers since it is the last time to grab subscribers before annual reporting. This is why the latest installment of my “Who Won the Month” series at Decider may be the most important one of 2020.
To keep that article flowing, I ended up cutting a few insights/thoughts from that article that still felt good enough to share. Consider this the “DVD extras” addendum to that great piece. (Seriously, read it before you continue.)
Other Contenders That I Didn’t Mention
The biggest drawback to a word count is having to cut a few shows from contention. Last month that mainly meant some shows from the smaller streamers. CBS All-Access released their latest Stephen King thriller The Stand. (It had a peak of 9 on Google Trends.) The challenge is a word like “stand” is fairly generic, so it just may not be picked up in the Google Trends data. However, on IMDb, its ratings are 6,600, so likely it isn’t really catching on. Showtime released Your Honor, but it didn’t really budge the popularity needle.
Apple TV+ focused on kids in the holidays, airing both A Charlie Brown Christmas and Wolfwalkers. Again, I didn’t really see the Wolfwalkers trending. (Charlie Brown is too generic.)
Caveats to IMDb Data
For the first time, I compared shows using IMDb ratings data. I both want to explain how and why I used this data source and also some other insights into last month’s results.
The “why” is because I love capturing qualitative feedback on a given show or film in addition to viewership. In particular for TV, this can be somewhat of a leading indicator to forecast if subsequent seasons of a show are going to build momentum or begin to flag. This applies to TV series as well as film franchises. Especially for franchises, actually. A big marketing campaign can result in a strong opening weekend, but if the IMDb ratings are low, then eventually the series will decay in viewership. (See Fantastic Beasts or The Hobbit series for some examples.)
As for how, I tend to use both the rating itself and the number of ratings. The number of ratings is fairly correlated with viewership overall. Thus, if you don’t have viewership itself, IMDb can act as a proxy, like Google Trends. The actual rating itself (the 1-10 numbers) doesn’t account for small but well-liked films and TV series. My approach is to make a scatter plot, and see which films are in the upper right: lots of reviews and high ratings. (If you want to pay for it—and I can’t afford it—IMDb page traffic is also a good proxy.)
Now the caveat: some folks hate using IMDb ratings because online trolls have attacked certain films.
You can see this in Wonder Woman 1984. While it has nearly as many ratings as Soul, its average rating is much, much lower. Which raises the question of whether or not Wonder Woman 1984 is being intentionally dragged by trolls online. And this is the main problem with IMDb data: some folks will intentionally drag down shows for political reasons, which skew the value of this data source.
But I won’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Because it’s the best publicly available, qualitative data set we have.
Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic are probably the next two biggest review sites, and their numbers are orders of magnitude smaller than IMDb. The caveat here, of course, is that larger sample sizes of biased data are still biased, meaning that doesn’t justify using IMDb. The problem is that for Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, their sample sizes in many cases aren’t big enough to be representative. I’ve considered using Amazon ratings, but in that case some films are available in streaming, but some are available for free and some are available for purchase. This makes ratings not apples-to-apples, and that’s before the fraud problem with Amazon ratings.
So when I use IMDb data, I tend to accept its shortcomings and use it carefully. To start, I know IMDb tends to skew “genre” in its ratings. This means for shows like The Expanse or Wonder Woman 1984, I’d say the reviews on IMDb are relevant. Since The Expanse has done well on IMDb, that shows some genuine fan interest. For something like Bridgerton, I’m less concerned if its score is weak.
Then, I try to figure out if a given show has been dragged by potential online trolls. When they have—eg The Last Jedi, Black Panther or Captain Marvel—I just wouldn’t use those ratings. Though don’t go overboard: don’t pretend that every poorly rated film is just a victim of online trolls. Some films are bad and fans don’t like them.
For Wonder Woman 1984 specifically, while I haven’t heard of any specific campaigns, on another user review site, Rotten Tomatoes, Wonder Woman 1984 has done better than its IMDb score. This likely indicates there is some intentional downvoting, but even with that it is unlikely Wonder Woman would have been a 8.0 or higher film.
A score of an “8” on IMDb tends to separate the merely good from the great. Meanwhile, The Midnight Sky did poorly in both locations. So it may be widely watched, but folks didn’t really love it.
(Also, never use the Tomatometer. That has very little nuance since it simply measures “good vs bad”.)
Did Netflix Have a Good December?
Probably, but not as good as last year. If you just casually read the news, you heard a series of great Netflix reports, and you’d assume they’re crushing it again.
Fortunately, I’ve collected every Netflix datecdote over the last few years and can put those numbers in context. Here’s the last three December releases that we have datecdotes for from Netflix. (These are films released in December. I’ll look at Netflix’s entire Q4 in a future article.)
The best way to describe this is that Netflix’s top film and top TV show released in December both underperformed their peers who launched last year. This looks even worse in context of the growth of the service during that time frame. The key question every quarter is whether Netflix’s content can help propel growth, or merely hold subscriber counts steady. And it seems to me like Netflix held steady in December compared to 2019.
Did Disney Really Win the Month?
For the first time in December, I didn’t just declare The Mandalorian as the winner in December, I also said that Disney won the month compared to Netflix. Essentially, between Soul and The Mandalorian, Netflix didn’t have a blockbuster show that drove the same level of interest.
The counter could be: but what if you added up every new thing Netflix released? Would it pass Disney by sheer volume?
So I looked for any Netflix series that seemed to generate interest and tried to figure that out. However, even after that, Disney was still the winner:
There is a lesson in here about content planning and “return on investment”. Essentially, Disney could match Netflix for interest with only two hit releases. Now, those two may not generate as much time on the platform as Netflix currently has (their usage is much higher), but as for keeping subscribers, Disney may be able to do that more efficiently. I say “may” because it’s not like the two pieces of content Disney made are cheap by any means. (The Mandalorian may be the most expensive show on TV until Lord of the Rings comes out.) That’s its own form of inefficiency.
This also repeats a point I constantly make about the streaming wars: the best shows aren’t a little better than other shows, but multiples better. Thus, you don’t win the streaming wars with singles and doubles, but grand slams. And in July, November and December, Disney hit a grand slam each month. And with much fewer at bats than Netflix. That is an efficient form of content spend.
November Flashback: What Can Nielsen’s Data Tell Us?
The one drawback to my “Who Won the Month” series is that Nielsen data usually isn’t ready by the time I write my initial article. (They perform better near the month they cover, so I try to write them for the last day of the month or so.) This means that we can now look back and see which calls I made in December are either confirmed or refuted by the Nielsen data.
So let’s hold myself accountable for my calls:
– Was The Mandalorian bigger than The Queen’s Gambit? I said yes, but according to Nielsen it depends how you count. The Queen’s Gambit was able to sustain higher week to week viewing than The Mandalorian, but Mando outpaced in terms of weeks on the Nielsen top ten:
– So The Crown was big? Yeah, that’s what the Nielsen data says. However, this is partly expected because The Crown now has four seasons airing, so that’s a lot of episodes to catch up on. The limitation of Nielsen’s data is we can’t see season level viewership. (That’s right, they give us some data and I just want more!)
– Did I undersell The Christmas Chronicles? Maybe. According to Nielsen’s data through the beginning of April, The Christmas Chronicles 2 had Netflix’s biggest film launch of this year in the United States by minutes viewed through the first two weeks! (36 million hours to Extraction’s 31.6 million hours in the first two weeks.)
– Did Hulu overhype Run? I think so. Hulu went so far as to release a vague press release calling Run its best performing film launch of all time. The problem for my system is that “run” is so vague that it didn’t register on Google Trends. So I said we’d wait for the Nielsen data to make a final call. When Nielsen released its weekly ratings for Thanksgiving weekend, Run didn’t make the cut.
– What about The Flight Attendant? At first, I was tempted to say that this HBO Max drama underperformed as well, because it didn’t make the Nielsen Top Ten. Then folks on Twitter (helpfully) pointed out that Nielsen isn’t tracking HBO Max yet. So we don’t know. Though, given that they only track services with a significant volume of regular viewers, likely The Flight Attendant wouldn’t have made the Nielsen top ten either.
My Favorite Ratings Tweet of the Quarter
This comes from Michael Mulvihill, who analyzes ratings for Fox Sports:
What if we apply 2 minute reach across multiple episodes to a popular show on traditional TV?
During the first 10 weeks of the NFL season 60 Minutes had….
Reach of 69.7m viewers who watched at least 2 minutes.
Average viewership of 11.0m https://t.co/ZVRdqxpVbW
— Michael Mulvihill (@mulvihill79) November 23, 2020
I would add, while he’s comparing 60 Minutes viewership to The Queen’s Gambit viewing, but that’s US only numbers compared to Netflix’s global viewership. (Correction: I initially wrote NFL instead of 60 Minutes.)