Thoughts on Comparing Manifest to You, Serialized Content and the The Craziest Theory Yet about Manifest

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Inspired by DVDs of old, whenever I dig into a particularly juicy topic—especially for another outlet—I write up a director’s commentary article for my own website. 

(Speaking of which, how does Disney+ not have director’s commentary versions of every MCU film? You’re telling me a cut of Avengers: Endgame with Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth doesn’t do crazy numbers? Or Kevin Feige with the Russo Brothers? Seriously who’s running the shop over there at Disney+?)

My article last week at The Ankler certainly fit the bill. (Behind a paywall.) Uncovering/proving that more total hours were watched on NBC than Netflix was a super flashy headline, but also an idea that demands more explanation. Today’s article is all the thoughts I couldn’t fit in that last piece. 

Content Strategy Thought 1 – Is Manifest’s Success Exactly Like You’s Netflix Success? Not Quite. 

Given my data, I do think it’s worth comparing Manifest on Netflix to something like You. For those who don’t know, You was first released on Lifetime, then had a second run on Netflix. Unlike Manifest, You had fairly small linear ratings; moving up to Netflix gave it a big boost. Netflix celebrated this success, giving You the “datecdote” treatment, as Netflix said 54 million households watched in the first 28 days. Netflix then bought the rights to future seasons, and season 2 of You also generated 54 million households watching.

Many analysts said that Manifest is following the tradition of Netflix making hits out of smaller series. Like You and Schitt’s Creek. 

Again, I don’t quite buy that. Because as I’ve shown, viewing was about the same for Manifest on NBC as on Netflix. So this isn’t a “bump”.

And this makes sense. I’ve long written that “Netflix is a broadcast channel”. Meaning Netflix viewers consume about as much content as broadcast viewers consume broadcast content. This surprises some media types—see below—but the data backs it up: as many folks watch broadcast channels as watch Netflix. (Prime Video and Disney+ are like big cable channels, in comparison.)

Using that comparison, you can see why shows get a bump when they show up on Netflix. It’s like getting a second run on another broadcast channel, which never happens. But the bump is even bigger for shows premiering on smaller cable channels, like You or Schitt’s Creek. In those cases, a buzzy original airing on cable gets a second run on broadcast, something that also never happens.

(Why doesn’t it happen? Because of the guilds. Historically, broadcast was the most valuable medium, so residuals are very high for broadcast, but not for streaming which is “new media”. So it’s much cheaper to go from broadcast to streaming or cable to streaming than vice versa. Arguably, four or five years ago, the large entertainment conglomerates should have negotiated this down so that they could take cable shows and give them second lives on broadcast. 

And in their new union contract negotiations, IATSE—another union—is trying to partially fix this. In particular, they want to stop calling streamers “New Media” arguing there is nothing new about their media. Fair!)

To add, Netflix is a unique “broadcast”-sized channel. If you’ve cut the cord, Netflix is often your first stop for TV. The folks who haven’t cut the cord, in contrast, watch shows from different broadcasters and cable companies every week. Some Netflix die-hards/zombies—including many in media—just watch Netflix. Arguably this makes the perception of the latest flavor of the week on Netflix even larger.

Media Thought 1 – Why Didn’t Anyone Else Figure Out that More (or, at worst, as Many) Folks Watched Manifest on NBC?

Because it takes time, a business model not driven by clicks, and a willingness to challenge standard narratives. In other words, an Entertainment Strategy Guy special.

I had to track down Wikipedia’s Nielsen viewership, build a model, estimate other viewership figures, and then compare them. Given the industry pressure for journalists to publish multiple articles per day, they don’t have the time to do this analysis. (It’s why lots of folks ask if I’ll write guest articles for their outlets, and I have to say no. Frankly I don’t have time. Three articles per week is about my max.)

It also requires a long view of the situation and one of the advantages Netflix has with their top ten lists is they focus on the here and now. Since most ratings reports cover “this week”, the condensed nature of viewing on Netflix makes it seem even larger than comparable shows on broadcast TV. This can lead to larger, more exaggerated headlines.

I’d add, it also violated the “narrative”. It’s easy to put stories into convenient boxes, and that happened here, “Manifest was a failure on NBC and now it’s a success on Netflix!” fits the pro-Netflix arguments adopted by most media. (Why do some media types love Netflix? See below.) But the crazy thing was doing research, I tried to find folks calling Manifest a failure when it was on NBC and I just couldn’t. It really didn’t become a “failure” until NBC cancelled it, which they did for reasons mostly unrelated to ratings. (See next.)

Content Thought 2 – This Is All About Ownership

If Manifest did about as well on NBC as Netflix, why the heck did they cancel it? Because NBC didn’t own it, and all conglomerates/streamers are moving towards owning their TV series. See, here’s the Wikipedia page:

If a co-production isn’t growing over time, it just isn’t worth a broadcast channel’s time or effort, especially since broadcasters need to make money each year/quarter. (Does Netflix need to make money? Kind of?) Moreover, NBC is even less incentivized since they control the rights after this window.

Media Thought 2 – You Are Not the Average American

When some media types say “America just discovered Manifest”, what they mean is “I just discovered Manifest.”

Frankly, it’s really hard to break out of your personal experience bubble. If everyone you know is watching Manifest, yeah it seems like it’s a juggernaut. And many media types have cancelled cable and watch all their TV via streaming. Of course, this puts them in a minority of Americans—as most folks still subscribe to cable!—but many journalists assume this is the norm.

That’s why we need data!

For example, everyone I know was voting for Elizabeth Warren, Bernie or Kamala Harris, but Joe Biden is president. FiveThirtyEight told me that was the likely outcome, not my biased sample size of my peer group. (Or Twitter.) That’s why we have data: because self-selected polling sucks at describing reality.

For another example, if you follow #FilmTwitter you’d be surprised to find out that The White Lotus isn’t America’s most popular show. In fact, while many industry folks and observers would call The White Lotus a hit—and it is for HBO—across all platforms its viewership topped at 1.9 million people for the seasons finale. Almost one-third more folks watched the last episode of Manifest…live! In June!

So we live in a world where Manifest is a failure to be mocked, but The White Lotus is the show of the summer…because folks were tweeting about it? 

That’s why we need data.

Content Strategy Thought 3 – Second Run vs First Run vs Licensed vs Original

For the last few months, I’ve been tracking how “second run” content performs. (Second run means content that that premiere on streaming after premiering elsewhere first. Sometimes this is a long hold back—it used to be a year plus—and now it is often weeks after broadcasts runs end.) 

Usually, second run content shows up on Nielsen’s “Acquired TV” list. Having analyzed the data for the last 16 months, there are basically two types of acquired/second-run shows. The first are the “pseudo-syndicated” shows. Library titles like NCIS or Grey’s Anatomy that have tons of episodes, so new episode releases don’t see a huge boost in viewership. But given the total volume of episodes, they dominate the “acquired” titles top ten list. CoComelon could be the reigning champion of them all.

But a few “second-runs” titles on Netflix act like first-run content. I first noticed this with Start Up, which went from relative obscurity on Crackle to a top show on Netflix. Then, like many shows, it disappeared off the top of the charts. Shows like Manifest or The Baker and the Beauty, continued this trend, performing more like “original” binge released titles. In some cases that’s because they’re brand new to Netflix and that means they got new exposure to a brand new audience.

Content Strategy Thought 4 – Serialized Content May Belong on Streaming Now

I’m not 100% convinced by this, but part of me does wonder if serialized content does better on streaming than traditional broadcast. This would make sense: the binge model allows folks to catch up on old episodes when they’ve missed them, which broadcast and cable still don’t make easy.

The caveat? We don’t quite see this with the premium channels, where serialized shows still do well. (HBO in particular with The White Lotus and Perry Mason.)

If I’m a broadcaster like ABC, NBC, CBS or The CW—which means part of a conglomerate with streaming ambitions—I’d ensure that every broadcast episode immediately goes to streaming and all the episodes stay there. (Don’t get me started on the disaster that was rolling 5.)

For example, NBC’s big show of the fall is La Brea, with I’ve been calling “Nu-Manifest” as it’s a high-concept, higher budget serialized drama. (That sounds exactly like Manifest.) That NBC owns outright this time. If I’m NBC, I make sure catch-up is super easy and widely available on Peacock and Hulu. And I’d advertise that fact.

Data Thought 1 – Netflix’s Lifetime is Much Shorter than NBC’s Lifetime

The goal is always “apples-to-apples”. Comparing like-to-like. Which was the main breakthrough of last week’s article, comparing viewership estimates on both services to get to an apples-to-apples number.

But my analysis last week was not completely apples-to-apples! While I held the “what” constant, the “when” was wildly different.

Data is almost always a world of trade-offs. In an ideal world, Netflix and NBC would have a series for the same amount of time. So the length of viewership would be the same. But, obviously, Netflix only started streaming episodes of Manifest in June. So I’m comparing 3+ years of NBC viewership to 3 months of Netflix viewership. Those two lengths are not the same!

Frankly, that doesn’t bother me that much. There is no way to make every data comparison “perfect”, because the release styles and time periods are different. What I’m trying to do is make the best possible fit, and that means comparing lifetime viewership to lifetime viewership with different lengths. Shortening the NBC window doesn’t make sense, since only one episode was measured at a time, compared to Netflix which had all the episodes at once. 

And given that Manifest will drop off Netflix top shows in a few weeks, the comparison of 3 months to 3 years feels reasonable. 

Data Thought 2 – Using the Same Source (Nielsen) Eliminates One Big Source of Error

One thing I am proud of it in this analysis is that I’m using the same data source for both estimates. One of the trickiest (and sub-optimal) ways to draw comparisons is to use two different data sources. Like Nielsen viewership to Netflix datecdotes or Samba TV estimates to Screen Engine polling. Since different measurement firms count things differently, it’s almost impossible.

The cool thing about this analysis is that I’m comparing Nielsen’s numbers in one realm to Nielsen’s numbers in another.

Data Thought 3: The Data 5Ws

For space, I left out my “Data 5Ws”. Here they are:

Who- Viewers of NBC and Netflix

What – Total Hours Viewed

When – From Fall of 2018 to Spring 2021 for NBC; from June to September 9th for Netflix

Where – The United States

Source – Nielsen Linear and Streaming viewership

Data Thought 4 – The Craziest Theory I Came Across

Okay, so here it is: the craziest thought I came across related to Manifest, is all the viewership fake?

On one hand, I don’t think a small number of people could game the system. But on the other hand, maybe? imagine it: people working from home set their phone, iPad, computer and TV to stream Manifest hour-after hour for weeks.

What do the numbers say? You’d have to have a lot of very committed folks to pull this off. If five thousand people streamed 40 hours per day for a week—meaning using multiple devices—that would be 1.4 million hours. Which sounds like a lot, but that’s still only 3.4% of what Manifest’s second week of viewing. 

So do I think this happened? Not enough to impact the data. But man I love the theory!

The Entertainment Strategy Guy

The Entertainment Strategy Guy

Former strategy and business development guy at a major streaming company. But I like writing more than sending email, so I launched this website to share what I know.


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