No, That’s Not a Hit Show

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(Welcome to the Entertainment Strategy Guy, a newsletter on the entertainment industry and business strategy. I write a weekly Streaming Ratings Report and a bi-weekly strategy column, along with occasional deep dives into other topics, like today’s article. Please subscribe.)

Well, this headline caught my eye:

As one reader emailed me, “It wasn’t a shocker if you read the Streaming Ratings Report!” (And thank you for the heads up!)

These days, I often find myself saying quite obvious things, yet in the Hollywood echo chamber, many people don’t realize that these obvious things are true. Like how films that go to theaters are more popular. Or how condensing five revenue streams into one isn’t more lucrative than multiple revenue streams. Or how customers prefer content in their own language. 

Or take this example:

We have streamings ratings now.

Obviously, you know this. You read the Streaming Ratings Report each week, so you know that Nielsen releases weekly top ten lists, along with a bunch of other companies like Samba TV and TV Time. And other publicly-available metrics I use to figure out how unpopular the non-hit shows are each week. (I wrote about all of this last year.)

But many people don’t know this, even entertainment industry journalists, reporters and critics. A few months ago, I read a big feature/expose on a streaming company, and it read like the reporter had never even heard of Nielsen. They literally wondered what the ratings were for the streamers’ shows, even though many of the ratings of that streamers’ most popular shows were publicly available.

Ratings matters. Everyone in Hollywood should know that ratings exist, so they know what most Americans like to watch. And Hollywood needs to re-figure out what most Americans actually like to watch; the market won’t work otherwise and, in an era of media competition than ever (like gaming and social media) Hollywood can’t afford not to. 

Message to Other Journalists/Entertainment Writers: We Have Ratings Right Now!!!

We have streaming ratings data now. And while it isn’t perfect, we know two things: whether a show is a hit and, by process of elimination, whether a show isn’t a hit. Over the last year or so, I stumbled across an interesting phenomenon: unpopular shows would get cancelled, then pop culture websites (or even actual newspapers and major websites) would complain that a “hit show” or “popular” show got cancelled, usually with a headline like, “Netflix Just Cancelled Another (YA/fantasy) Hit Show!!!” 

What am I talking about? I don’t know, check out these headlines:

To be clear, none of these shows were hits.

In my last “Renewals, Cancellations and Un-Orders” article, I made a list of reasons for why a show can get renewed even if it isn’t popular. Conversely, as I wrote about regarding Warrior Nun, ironically, people actually think the opposite is true. They think that the streamers are actively cancelling their most popular shows.

So let me argue for another seemingly-obvious point:

The streamers and networks don’t cancel popular shows (i.e. shows with good ratings).They tend to cancel unpopular shows (i.e. shows with bad ratings), but not all of them.

Unlike unpopular shows getting renewed for future seasons, I don’t think popular shows get cancelled. Re-read that list from my cancellations article on all of the factors for why non-hit shows get renewed. Aside from budget, almost none of them apply to popular shows. (In this case, the converse applies: if your show is really, really expensive, then guess what? You need to get really, really good ratings!)

Again, I know this seems obvious, but those are tons of examples of reporters, writers and critics complaining that their favorite shows got cancelled, claiming that these shows were “popular” despite the evidence that, no, those shows weren’t popular.

I would note a few more things on these examples:

  1. I think these articles get clicks. I mean, I know they do, since it stokes outrage, which drives engagement online. And stoking outrage seems to matter more than factual accuracy, a point you could seemingly make again and again about journalism and social media these days. (The real issue with the internet/discourse on the internet is how much is driven by negative emotions, resulting in rage, anger, depression, and so on.)
  2. These writers could check the ratings; they choose not to. But this is kind of hypocritical. If a show does really well, these exact same writers will tout its Nielsen, Samba TV and Netflix Top Ten charts ratings. If not…they just ignore the ratings. (To be fair, they often cite Netflix top ten lists, but without context for how most hit shows perform much better globally. Stop using Netflix Top Ten lists without context!)
  3. In the past few months, I’ve actually noticed this trend happening a bit less, mainly because the wording has shifted. “Fan favorite” has come to replace “Hit”. Really, “fan favorite” is code for “People I follow on social media.”

A Lot of Writers and Actors Either Don’t Know That There’s Ratings

Vulture wrote a whole article interviewing confused, upset creatives who don’t know how their shows are performing, titled “‘I Don’t Know How My Show Is Doing: Streamers run on data, but that doesn’t mean they’re sharing it with showrunners.” As Rebecca Metz said on an episode on the Ankler podcast, “The metrics that streamers use to define success are notoriously murky and confusing…Even after something airs, we don’t know if it was successful.”

Kim Masters, on her KCRW show The Business, has done a good job, for years, asking almost every streaming TV show creator about the lack of ratings transparency. This interview with Tony McNamara of The Great is probably the best example. (Even though it’s a year old, The Business just re-aired this very episode last May.) I’ve linked to it twice, but I really think it’s the best distillation of the pre-streaming ratings mindset for creatives:

As is typical for a streamer, Hulu doesn’t tell McNamara much about who’s watching. But he’s fine with that. “You sort of assume it’s going well because they renew it,” McNamara says. “But you’re not locked into ‘what’s the ratings this week? What’s the data?’ So there’s a freedom in that.”

I can’t tell you exactly what the ratings were like for The Great, since it didn’t make any of the ratings charts I track (except for a short run on TV Time) but, by process of elimination, I can tell you this: they weren’t good. We actually did get a Samba TV datecdote on The Great a few years ago and…wait for it…the show only had 20K households watch in the first four days. 

That’s a terrible ratings number for a small cable network.

But the best/worst example is probably Reboot. After this show got cancelled, due to low ratings, the actors involved in the show argued that it was popular:

I’m confused, people seemed to be watching it in my world. They don’t release numbers so I’m not sure how metrics work…I don’t know, I don’t understand the market…Nothing’s straightforward anymore, everyone is kind of sad and confused at the moment in general in Hollywood.
Rachel Bloom 

It’s with a heavy heart that I say despite getting great reviews and being nominated for a Critics Choice Award @hulu has failed to pick up Reboot even for a second season. Pretty unbelievable.
Johnny Knoxville 

Believe me, I can’t understand [the cancellation] either. Hopefully we get to make more somewhere else.
Paul Reiser

But if these actors had been following Reboot‘s weekly ratings, the writing would have been on the wall for months. This isn’t an example of the streamers using “notoriously murky” data or decision-making; it’s fairly straight-forward: the reason we don’t have data for Reboot is that so few people watched it, it didn’t make the Nielsen charts. On IMDb, it only had 7.2K reviews months after it aired, which is very low. 

As far as that last quote, that refers to Steve Levitan’s promise to shop the show around. As of right now, no one else has picked it up, probably for the same reason Reboot got cancelled in the first place: its ratings weren’t good. It was one of our bombs of the year for 2022.

For some, the data the streamers provide isn’t useful. Like the creator of Netflix’s The Babysitter’s Club reboot, who told Yahoo, “The data is not that useful unless you have everybody else’s data too. When you only have your numbers in a vacuum and you don’t know the numbers of anything else, you don’t know what you’re trying to hit.” Same goes for the creators of animated shows at Netflix, who accused Netflix of showing them “staged data”. But again these creators wouldn’t need to rely on Netflix’ data…if they knew streaming ratings data did exist!

Finally, some people just don’t care about the ratings. In Matthew Belloni’s newsletter last summer, a showrunner on a Apple TV+ show told him…

Why would you suggest that Apple kill their streamer?? This company has been a patron of Hollywood for five years now, pumping billions of dollars into the creative economy. Who cares if anyone watches? They made my show and it’s great.

In other words, who cares if people are making TV shows that no one’s watching? The check cleared, didn’t it? 

How Do We Fix This?

I don’t really have a strong point to make at the end of this article. I don’t like calling out other journalists, though I could way more than I do, since I think it’s an annoying (at best) and mean (at worst) way to do journalism. But I sort of wish that Hollywood, collectively, did just that. 

If someone says that ratings don’t exist, people need to tell them that they do! If someone says that no one knows what the ratings mean, people need to point them over here. Especially high profile, super famous actors and writers. These people (and their representation) should know better. 

I don’t think people will stop saying things like this until it seems dumb to say so. And right now, for a lot of people, it seems smart to say things like “We don’t have ratings!” and “Netflix is run by an algorithm” and so on, even though it isn’t true. And I’m not really sure when this will change. 

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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