Is The Future of Streaming…The Ultimatum?

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Planning this week’s streaming ratings report I had a weird response:

Is this really the future of TV?

Remember back when Netflix and Prime Video started making original content? Those shows were buzzy! Orange is the New Black! House of Cards! Transparent! The Man in the High Castle! Streaming was coming and it would be big and expensive. Bold and innovative. A new golden age was coming! (And arguably did come…)

But look at the top new shows on streaming this week. The biggest new release is another reality/dating show. The rest of the new shows are cheap specials, true crime docs, foreign imports, and loads of kids content. (Sooooo much kids content.)

This may sound a bit like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth, because  I don’t totally mind this shift. Cheaper content may not be beloved—it’s called a “guilty pleasure” for a reason—but it works.

By works, of course I mean lots of people watch it. Which was the theme of my last two articles at The Ankler, in case you missed them. In my latest, I look at Hulu’s “comedies”, and frankly, it isn’t pretty. In a similarly disappointing look for a streamer, last week I compared Judge Judy (the syndicated show) to Judy Justice (the Amazon show). Check ‘em out. (The second isn’t behind a paywall.)

(Reminder: The streaming ratings report focuses on the U.S. market and compiles data from Nielsen’s weekly top ten viewership ranks, TV Time trend data, Netflix datecdotes and hours viewed data, Netflix Top Ten lists, Google Trends and IMDb to determine the most popular content. While most data points are current, Nielsen’s data covers the weeks of April 4th to April 10th.)

Television

As an example of the type of “cheap” reality content I think works on TV (and streaming), look no further than The Ultimatum: Marry or Move On, which debuted on Netflix on Wednesday 6-April. A cousin to Netflix’s Love is Blind, it too features hosts Nick and Vanessa Lachey and is produced by Kinetic Entertainment (a production company owned by German entertainment conglomerate Prosieben).

Released on a Wednesday—which gives it an advantage in total days available compared to Friday released series—it had 14 million hours, good for 21st out of 125 season one releases in my data set. Not bad! Samba TV clocked it at 990K households watching in the first 6 days. 

Here’s how that stacks up for comparison:

(Quick data explanation/learning point: I’ve built up my Samba TV database to include virtually every data point they’ve ever released. But since their data points have different time periods [sometimes L+2, meaning the first three days of release, sometimes L+3, and so on], I’ve arranged the data points by time period. You can assume that a show released with L+4 [meaning 5 days, say Friday to a Tuesday] would have grown if it had L+5 days of data. Though that growth really starts to slow after the first three days. I plan to quantify this in a future article.)

Of course, caveats. (I should rename myself Entertainment Caveat Guy.) This show likely got somewhat of a boost in total viewership and households because Netflix binges released eight episodes in week one, then released two more the next week. But if you ask me, I’d still space out these episodes even more. Seriously, Netflix, let your reality shows build anticipation!

As a result, while The Ultimatum started strong, it dropped off the TV Time rankings after three weeks:

The Ultimatum likely won’t sustain these numbers over multiple weeks, which is one major reason why I think Netflix needs to start releasing shows weekly, a lesson multiple other streamers seem to have already learned. 

That said, for the price, I like this show. Assuming Netflix can make reality shows like this one for a fraction of the price of big prestige dramas—and if they can’t, that’s a serious issue they need to address!—then they’re getting nearly as much viewership as most scripted dramas for a lot less money. That’s a good return on investment.

(Learning point two: If you go to the IMDb page, yeah, the number of reviews probably seems pretty low. But for most reality shows, the total number of reviews is much lower than other types of content, like superhero TV shows. Even elite reality shows—Top Chef, Great British Baking Show, Survivor—have a fraction of the IMDb ratings that other shows have. So I don’t hold low total ratings against reality TV series. And yes, I need to write a long explainer/data dive on IMDb data. It’s on my radar.)

Quick Notes on TV

– Prime Video’s The Outlaw—released on 1-April—was saved from the ignominious fate of being a “Dog Not Barking” by earning 4.0 million hours in its second week of release. For a binge-released title, this isn’t a great performance, but it’s also a U.K. import, so presumably not as expensive as some other Prime Video titles. But don’t pop the champagne, Prime Video. 4.0 million hours through four week is good for the 111th place out of 125 streaming, season one debuts in my data set. 

– You may have noticed a title on the TV Time ranking that I haven’t mentioned yet: Young Justice. For all the trouble Warner Bros. has had with their DC films, they’ve consistently put out quality DC animated series and films, of which Young Justice is the latest incarnation. It’s made the TV Time rankings for 5 weeks after second batch of episodes from its fourth season landed on HBO Max on 31-March. Say it with me, HBO release your data! My gut—based on the non-Nielsen data—is you probably have a really good story to tell!

– Every so often a show features a perfect “binge release curve” where, due to how Nielsen releases weekly data, a show starts slow, has a big second week, then drops off significantly into its third week. Let me present, Is It Cake?’s binge release curve:

– As for other returning series, at 122.8 million hours, Bridgerton’s second season is just behind The Umbrella Academy (123.1) season two through three weeks, but ahead of The Witcher season two (112.5). Ozark season four—with the caveat that it had more 21 more episodes to drive viewership—had 156.2 million hours through three weeks. Notably, Ozark has never left the top ten rankings since it’s last batch of episodes released, and it has new episodes releasing on 29-April.

Looking at their content week in and week out, I think Netflix has a really strong quarter in the works. Between starting April with new episodes of Bridgerton, then debuting seasons of Russian Doll, Grace and Frankie and Ozark, then finishing with a batch of Stranger Things, man, that’s a good content line-up.

But is it enough? I doubt they incorporate content into their subscriber estimate model, since it’s tough to predict how content performs, and current churn probably is the most predictive factor. But if content does have an impact—and I think it does, especially over the long term—then I think they may surprise on subscriber estimates at the end of this quarter. (The downside, of course, is if this is a strong quarter content-wise and they still lose subscribers, then content alone can’t save them.)

– As for the other returning shows, Moon Knight had an expected viewership bump into its second week, up to 10 million hours. That’s good enough to put it up to fourth place in the Nielsen rankings though two weeks, behind Loki, Hawkeye and The Falcon and Winter Soldier. I think we can tentatively say that MCU characters with higher name recognition will have stronger starts on Disney+, but after that the shows have to be good. (And the MCU shows generally are, at least for the core fanbase.) In Hulu news, The Dropout made Nielsen for the second week in a row, showing that show’s staying power after getting a ton of buzz:

– As for licensed content, Better Call Saul’s fifth season was released on Netflix on 4-April, just two weeks before season six debuted on AMC, earning 15 million hours viewed. AMC made a smart call, too, by insisting that their logo is featured on the cover art for the show, not something you usually see with licensed/library titles.

The CW shows, for example, don’t usually get that treatment. Or look at Queen of the South, a USA Network show from NBC Universal that also had new episodes debut on Netflix on 7-April. Netflix doesn’t slap any logos on it. Season 5 of Queen of the South debuted to 7.9 million hours, which compares to the 8.6 million hours it netted the last time new episodes debuted, way back in June of 2020.

– On the licensed TV front, Bluey looks as entrenched as CoComelon in the rankings, just not with quite as many hours viewed.

– I’m going to go ahead and make HBO Max’s Julia the “Dog Not Barking” of the week. Between this show, Slow Horses and The Girl from Plainsville, this seems like the title that left the most on the table. It currently has an 8.5 on IMDb—which is an elite score if it holds, but par for the course for HBO—but only has 3.8K reviews, which is bad, bad, bad. If I could offer some programming advice to the good folks at Warner Bros. Discovery, it would be to give this show a second run on the actual HBO linear channel later this summer. It could help it generate some needed buzz.

– The new shows that missed the rankings this week are Tokyo Vice on HBO Max, Elite on Netflix, and Woke on Hulu (as I predicted last week and check out my Ankler article for more on Hulu’s comedy woes). Elite is an interesting case, as it did very well internationally for Netflix, with 51 million hours in its first weekend globally. In the past, Elite got the “datecdote” treatment to tout Netflix’s international production success, as Netflix announced that 20 million folks watched at least 70% of one episode for season 1 in the first 28 days and then approximately 27 million watching for season four. We’ll see if it can crack into the U.S. rankings next week.

– Most weeks, I ignore kids titles for the “dogs not barking” feature since most don’t make the rankings. But this week I noticed an unusually large number of kids titles  best on well-known pre-existing IP, so thought I’d point them out:

iCarly (a reboot) on Paramount+
Green Eggs and Ham on Netflix
The Hardy Boys on Hulu
Barbie: It Takes Two on Netflix
Madagascar: A Little Wild on Hulu and Peacock
The Croods: Family Tree on Hulu and Peacock

The kids streaming wars are just as fierce as the adult version! And by the way, if you’re Hulu or Peacock, why release two Dreamwork Animated kids series in the same week? Why not space them out?

Film

The “big” release on streaming film is All The Old Knives on Prime Video. A spy thriller starring Chris Pine, it debuted to 3.5 million hours in its first week. Do I have to tell you that’s “meh”? Probably not, as its good for tied for 110th place out of 156 films in my data set to stream first.

(Learning point three: This is also a good demonstration of my old axiom that entertainment has “logarithmically distributed returns”, meaning the the shows/films are multiples better than the bottom 90%. Think of it this way: Wonder Woman 1984’s debut had as much viewership as the bottom 31 films in this data set. Even more, considering all the streaming titles that never made the Nielsen charts, the Dogs Not Barking.)

Pulling my research I noticed that Amazon actually has Chris Pine’s name in the URL for the film.Not sure if they do that for other films, but you can tell that Prime Video thinks stars matter. (We know Netflix does.)

Quick Notes on Film

– The top film on the TV Time charts is Death on the Nile, released 29-March. Between Death on the Nile and the upcoming The Batman, theatrical films moving to streaming seem to top the TV Time rankings. Death on the Nile came out on HBO Max and Hulu, so it isn’t eligible for Nielsen rankings. Which is a bummer.

– I haven’t mentioned Jackass Forever yet, which had a theatrical run before appearing on Paramount+ forty-five days later on 22-March. Since we don’t get Paramount+ data—hey, Paramount+, let Nielsen release your data—we can look to TV time, where it had a two week run getting to the 6th and 8th places, which feels a bit light.

– This week felt light on film overall. The biggest “news” is that The Bubble didn’t have a big second week jump:

– Again, the rest of the film week was as light as you could get. Two licensed titles made the list, Without a Paddle and Catch and Release, each getting 3.1 hours of viewing. 

– In library title news, welcome back Moana! That little film is a juggernaut in the kids space due to rewatching.

– Lastly specials. Usually I skip most specials since we either don’t get data for them or they’re too small to get noticed. Well, the first weekend of April had both nights of WrestleMania 38, which was also available on Peacock. Did it drive a huge boost in ratings? Who knows.

– As for Dogs Not Barking, Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood wins the prize, given that it was directed by Richard Linklater, an EntStrategyGuy fav. If I’m him, I insist my next film gets a theatrical run just to force critics to see it and generate buzz. Meanwhile, I’m keeping my eye on Metal Lords on Netflix. It missed the Nielsen rankings this week, but based on the TV Time trends above, it may have a semi-slow build.

Competition 

Time to check in on the competitive of the streaming wars, this time using TV Time’s film and TV charts. 

Here’s each streamer’s share of the top ten film and TV series rankings:

After a slow start to the quarter, Netflix really came on in the last few weeks. Given the big guns they have set to debut (Ozark, Stranger Things) I could see this holding on the TV side. Contrariwise, a slew of theatrically-released films will start arriving on rival streamers soon, and that could bump off some Netflix films. We’ll see.

I’d also note that you can see three tiers in this data. Netflix is number one, clearly, with HBO Max and Disney+ solidly in the first tier behind them. Hulu, Paramount+ and Prime Video are the second tier, and everyone else (AMC, Apple TV+, Roku) are in the next tier.

Anecdata of the Week 

Here’s the thing about predictions: often times a simple “rule of thumb” prediction beats complicated models. In the case of the Grammys Award Show, which aired on 3-April, if you’d asked me, “How will they do this year?” I’d have taken last years number (8.9 million viewers) and given it the same bump the Academy Awards saw (about 50%). A simple rule of thumb approach.

And I’d have been wrong! The Grammys’ viewership only increased 4% to 9.6 million viewers. 

Unlike the Academy Awards, I don’t have an easy solution for this music show.

Coming Soon!

Next week will continue the “streaming is now reality TV” trend, as the big new debut is The Kardashians on Hulu. I exited it to be a strong contender next week. Notably, the episodes are being released weekly (which will lower the total viewership) but Hulu said it had a strong debut. (It’s IMDb scores are middling, but again for cheap reality I’d ignore it.) 

But more prestige shows are coming! Netflix will release Anatomy of a Scandal—which has poor ratings so far—and Prime Video will release Outer Range, which stars Josh Brolin. Later this month, Russian Doll, The Flight Attendant, Under the Banner of Heaven, Ozark, Grace and Frankie, and A Very British Scandal will give us quite a bit of content to analyze.

On the film side, The Batman has done very well, and may singlehandedly prove the point that theatrical films do well on streaming. Its biggest streaming competition may be Netflix’s 365: This Day, which is basically a foreign-made softcore porn film. Interesting choice there. 

(As always, sign up for my newsletter to get all my columns, streaming ratings reports, and articles in your inbox.)

Appendix

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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