Back to the Future of Live TV

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(Welcome to my weekly streaming ratings report, the single best guide to what is popular in streaming TV and what isn’t. I’m the Entertainment Strategy Guy, a former streaming executive who now analyzes business strategy in the entertainment industry. If you were forwarded this email, please subscribe to get these insights each week.)

When it comes to sports opinions, you can’t please everyone. Or, put another way, you’re going to piss off someone, if not everyone. Like the main focus of this week’s report, Tom Brady, who, in my opinion as an insane sports fan, just sucks. The thing is, writing that is going to piss off every New Englander that reads this issue. Cards on the tables, my sports-hatred (not real hatred, sports-hatred) for certain teams is strong, and the Patriots definitely fall in that sports-hate bucket.  

Then again, as much as it pains me to say it, data is data, and according to viewership data, you know what? The Roast of Tom Brady was HUUUUGE in its second week. So props to Tom Brady. (And now I’ve pissed off the other half of the audience who hates Tom Brady. You can’t win with sports opinions.)

But maybe that’s the genius of the roast itself? It probably got big tune-in from the Patriots stans and haters alike. The fans show up to watch their favorite team, while the haters watched it to see people make fun of Tom Brady and the other Patriots.

So that’s the big topic of the week, but we’re also going to cover whether or not Mother of the Bride is a hit, a check-in on Baby Reindeer after week five, huge live ratings for a pretty obscure sport, Law & Order: Organized Crime making a top ten chart, a library title from a famous country music artist making the acquired charts, an HBO show finally showing up, all the flops, bombs and misses for the week, plus a whole lot more.

First up, a look at Netflix’s move into live television and what it does and doesn’t mean. Let’s dive right in!

(Reminder: The streaming ratings report focuses on the U.S. market and compiles data from Nielsen’s weekly top ten viewership ranks, Luminate’s Top Ten Data, Showlabs, TV Time trend data, Samba TV household viewership, company datecdotes, and Netflix hours viewed data, Google Trends, and IMDb to determine the most popular content. While most data points are current, Nielsen’s data covers the weeks of May 6th to May 12th.)

Television – Back to The Future of Television. It’s Live.

Whose roast got bigger ratings, Charlie Sheen’s (on Comedy Central in 2011) or Tom Brady’s (on Netflix)?

The answer: actually, it depends on the time frame. But the answer tells us a lot about how streaming has and hasn’t changed TV viewing.

If you look at live US ratings—which were what everyone used to care about back in the day—the answer is Charlie Sheen at over six million viewers. (Again, this is just in America.) Of all of the Comedy Central Roasts—this Wikipedia page has a good run down—Tom Brady would have been the third highest-rated roast out of them all. According to Nielsen, The Roast of Tom Brady had 4.7 million hours viewed in its first week, and since it came out on a Sunday, that’s basically live tune-in. Call it about 1.2 million “views”.

If you look at global ratings in its first eight days, though, Tom Brady wins by a mile. In its second week, his roast got 27.9 million hours of viewership. (I’d predict a pretty severe binge-release curve for this one.) Cards on the table, I don’t have the second week data for Comedy Central, but I doubt they ever did that well. Then again, it’s not like Comedy Central didn’t replay its roasts on a loop for a week, then replay them annually every year at roast season.

Netflix (Re)Invents Live TV

But Tom Brady’s roast doesn’t feel like the story this week. Because it wasn’t just Brady. As I noted last week, the week of 29-April felt like a sea change for Netflix, as they released multiple live programs:

  • The Roast of Tom Brady – A live special
  • Katt Williams: Woke Foke – A live standup special
  • John Mulaney Presents: Everybody’s in LA – A live late night show

Neither of the other two live TV experiments worked. Katt Williams: Woke Foke isn’t a “Dog Not Barking” (my term for any show that doesn’t make any of the ratings charts that we track, find an explainer here)—since it made the Samba TV charts at fifth place for one week—but that still feels pretty low. It missed Nielsen and Luminate too.

More concerning is John Mulaney Presents: Everybody’s in LA. After a full week of episodes, it only did 4.0 million hours according to Luminate (23rd out of 25 season one Netflix shows in my, admittedly, tiny database), and it missed the Nielsen charts entirely, meaning it didn’t have more than 4 million hours at best, though it did make the Samba TV charts for a week. And this is in spite of having an absolutely star-studded roster, including Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Silverman, David Letterman, Bill Hader, Will Ferrell, Jon Stewart, Beck, Mike Birbiglia, Hannah Gadsby, Gabriel Iglesias, Pete Davidson, St. Vincent, Ray J, Warren G, Nate Bergatze, and a ton of standup comedian cameos.

Netflix is Still Figuring Out Live TV 

In this case, judging success or failure from one week of live TV is probably premature. While the supporters of Netflix will point to Tom Brady, the critics could point to John Mulaney. Previous live events have been hit or miss. The live sporting events from the fall and spring (The Netflix Cup and Netflix Slam) both missed all the American charts, and did extremely poorly in Netflix’s global charts. On the other hand, Chris Rock’s live special did do well.

In general, though, I like this strategy from Netflix. Sure, it’s also another check in the “Never-flix” checklist—never stream sports, never run ads, never crackdown on password sharing—and now we can officially unofficially check off “Never make live TV”. (I’m particularly waiting on Netflix films to go to theaters, which they seem adamant they’ll never do, but re-read that section on ads! I got it wrong! And their TV shows are getting more and more spread out…) If I had to be critical, I’d ask why Netflix didn’t embrace live TV from the get-go, but that feels unfair. After all, Netflix is doing what I thought they should from the beginning. Better late than never.

That said, it’s slightly unclear to me if Netflix’s UX will ever truly support live TV. I hesitate to say that “something won’t work on streaming”, a conclusion I often hear from pundits (The weirdest example is one pundit asking whether “sports will work on streaming” pre-NFL games on streaming and now it’s obvious there’s no difference between linear TV and streaming when it comes to sports.) but most streaming services don’t have/utilize/embrace linear streams, especially Netflix. And it likely lowers the ceilings of these live events.

Compare those John Mulaney ratings above to broadcast. The Late Show averages over 2.3 million viewers an episode. The Tonight Show averages 1.5 million, and Jimmy Kimmel is around that range too. After a certain point, if you can’t air an ad for a late night show (“Tonight, Bill Hader joins John Mulaney. And you won’t believe who pops in as a surprise guest!”) you’re never really going to be able to turn live shows into events. Even for the Roast of Tom Brady, most viewers watched it delayed.

Along with the other “nevers” I mentioned above, “never do a linear channel” is on that list. And I don’t see that changing anytime soon. 

Quick Notes on TV

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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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