Category: Ideas

Read My Latest at Decider: “‘The Boys’ Is a Hit for Amazon, But What Does That Mean?”

Last week, I threw up a quick Twitter thread on The Boys and I just turned it into a full article for Decider.  (And it’s short for me, about 800 words.)

So take a read and share on social media! Appreciate it in advance.

Of course, trying to judge if a series is performing well or poorly is NOT simple. And as I found some new data sources, I had thoughts that got cut from the final article. (As always.) So here’s the rest of the story, including a broadcast comparison, how I think about managing messy data sets and the rest of Amazon Studios datecdotes.

Introduction – A BH90210 Comparison

Initially, I was going to compare The Boys to BH90210, the Beverly Hills, 90210 revival that was off to a good start last week. Here’s the Variety quote on its success:

Image 1 - Variety TV Rating

That’s good! Or is it bad? I mean, is 3.8 million people watching good? Honestly, with broadcast we don’t know since a show like Night Court used to get 20 million viewers in the 1980s, and The Big Bang Theory—the biggest show on broadcast in 2019—didn’t even get that for its finale. (Fine, it did with DVR viewing.) No seriously, here are the ratings for Night Court:

Image 2 - Night Court Ratings

So which was bigger, BH90210 or The Boys? To the Google Trends. Now, here’s the first look and you can say, “Well The Boys won”…

Image 3 - The Boys initial

But I told you Google Trends was finicky, didn’t I? The problem with a show like BH90210 is the title is super generic and derivative off another series. So here’s with a few other variations on that title.

Image 4 - GTrends Updated

Add them all up, and BH9210 was more in the consciousness than The Boys. Whether that translates to more viewers, I can’t say. But it provides some “broadcast to streaming” context.

Comment on Amazon Datecdotes

One of my favorite parts about writing and researching this article was it forced me to look up all of Amazon’s “datecdotes“. Which I’d been meaning to do since their last earnings report, where they again touted Emmy success while steadfastly avoiding numbers a la Netflix.

Now, why wouldn’t Amazon tell us good news? Well, the pro-Amazon case is they have all sorts of good news but are hoarding it for some advantage. That’s frankly BS. My rule of thumb with all large organizations—from the government to any corporation—is they share good news and hide/bury the bad.

The most basic assumption is that Amazon’s overall numbers are much, much smaller than Netflix, so they avoid specifics. Because if they did, they would look bad. That’s simple logic.

Anyways, here’s my Amazon datecdotes table, a la Netflix. Notably, I left out two other sets of numbers for space in my Decider piece. First, the Reuters leak from last year had aadditional details for Transparent and Good Girls Revolt. Second, last fall Amazon touted it’s NFL viewership numbers for Thursday Night Football:

Image 5 - AMZN Datecdotes

Some quick notes. For The Man In the High Castle, for example, we still don’t really know what 8 million viewers means. Is that over the lifetime, up to the point in time Reuters got the leak? Or some shorter time period? With data, that distinction is really important. 

Or take The Tick as a top five series for Amazon in 2017. That would worry me, given that as the IMDb data shows that series wasn’t even that popular. And it was in their top five? And now it and Sneaky Pete are off your platform? That would make make me think the other series are much much smaller than we imagine. (Sneaky Pete was also a Sony co-production. So the co-pro curse strikes again.)

Google Trends – The Boys Pessimistic Case

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Read My Latest at Decider: “To Binge or Not to Binge: Who Won the Battle Between Game of Thrones and Stranger Things”?

I just had a guest article published at Decider, this time asking, “Should Netflix keep binge releasing all its series?” My conclusion: not all of them. Essentially, Netflix is leaving “awareness” on the table.

Take a read and share on social media. Also, shout out to Alan Wolk, who tackled this back in the spring with Game of Thrones. I’d been toying with this idea when I read his take, and tried to update his thesis with the Stranger Things data point.

Like all long articles I write, I had two ideas that didn’t fit in the main piece. Here they are.

Has Hulu’s Weekly Release Helped?

It’s tough to say. Here’s the brutal case against it:

Image 8 - G Trends with Handmaids

Frankly, The Handmaid’s Tale is their most popular series and it is clearly the lightweight to the Game of Thrones/Stranger Things heavyweights. So let’s drop those two, and throw it up against some similar competition.

Chart 7 - Google Trends TV.png

That’s better, and you can see the same weekly interest boost that Big Little Lies and Game of Thrones had, just on a different scale. Instead, I still think that Hulu is just much, much smaller than Netflix right now. (Which, yes, isn’t breaking news.) Or about where HBO is, given that the interest almost matches something like Big Little Lies.

The counter to the binge model, though, could also be this chart. If The Handmaid’s Tale had dropped on one weekend, would Hulu even have a chance to keep it in the conversation? I don’t think so. In this case, Hulu made the right decision. This naturally leads us to ask about not just the current streamers, but the future streamers.

What Should the DAWN (Disney, Apple, Warner and NBC) Streamers Do?

Well, it depends on who you are and what your business model is, but overall, I’d be flexible. If you have a show with tons of pent up demand—like the upcoming Lord of the Rings on Amazon—consider weekly releases for the first season. Ride the potential enthusiasm to help launch weeks worth of content.

For the rest, I’d consider what type of content you have. Disney has a lot of shows that will benefit from weekly releases. Star Wars or Marvel TV series are guaranteed to drive conversation on comics and sci-f (fanboy) websites and podcasts. Weekly releases will amplify their reach from season one. For other dramas? Maybe not.

For HBO Max, they know all about launching prestige television, but HBO is about to quickly run out of days to launch all their content. In that sense, having more binge releases may make sense. Though again many of their fantasy or superhero series are destined to be stars in recap culture. For NBC, I still know so little about their platform that I won’t even speculate.

Apple may benefit the most from the binge release model. They are buying a ton of content and needs lots of buzz right from launch. Moreover, they aren’t trying to build a streaming platform per se, but a TV platform of which the content serves a subsidiary purpose. They should probably consider an approach closer to launching all series on binge, then rolling out the hits weekly for season twos.

Fine, What About Netflix?

If I were Netflix, I think they are missing something essential about how the social conversation drives a show to new heights. Right now, they have one potential mega-hit in Stranger Things. Even if they want to keep binge releases for all ten thousand other releases, they should consider carving exceptions for their biggest hits. A Stranger Things weekly release likely would have brought in new customer which they, um, need nowadays.

The key boils down to flexibility and being innovative. Innovation is not saying “Never, never, never.” It’s about understanding your customers, your business models and the attention landscape to maximize your return on assets.

“Neverflix” – What Netflix’s Q2 Earnings Says About Their Future Strategy

This sub-bullet in CNBC’s “prepare you for the earnings report” article caught my attention:

QUOTE 11 - Wont catch p soonOn the surface, it’s clearly true. One bad earnings report won’t power Disney+ or HBO Max to 150 million subscribers. But as I reflected on it, the key variable is “when is soon?” By the end of the year, sure, Netflix is safe. But what about the end of 2020? Or 2021? If someone does catch up to Netflix, then the streaming wars will have a new champion.

Let’s see if the earnings report sheds any light on that question.

Strategy

Most earnings reports don’t reveal monumental shifts in strategy. This report would mostly qualify, except that Netflix did rule out a key potential revenue stream in fairly definitive terms.

“Neverflix”

At the end of last year, when it came to a Netflix show airing on a linear channel, I called Netflix the “company of Never”:

QUOTE 12 Neverflix

This earnings report doubled down on the fact that Netflix will NOT roll out advertising any time soon. I believe them and agree with this position. Adding advertisements will concretely change the user experience, likely leading to higher subscriber churn than the ad wizards begging for it expect.

I have softened on the position of “never” recently. I do appreciate Netflix’s relentless focus. A good strategy is a focused strategy, and saying “No” to efforts that divide your energy can be a wise tactic. But let’s not go overboard. For example, releasing episodes weekly.

I’d argue that decision is not material to the Netflix customer experience. Instead, binge releasing is a decision they made, and now cling to unnecessarily. Why isn’t, for example, Stranger Things 3 being released weekly? Having one series go weekly won’t lead to customer churn. There may be a 10,000 angry fans on the internet who want the binge, but again that’s noise, not signal. (I like this issue so much, I wrote an article for another publication coming out soon.)

Oh, and one other “never” that should really worry Reed Hastings.

The Never That Terrifies Me: Aggregation

If I understand the Netflix bulls correctly, the sky-high stock price—if it isn’t based on past performance being sky-high—is due to the fact that at some point, Netflix will be TV. Netflix isn’t just “another streamer”, it’s the future of TV. But is that future already in the rear view mirror?

Currently, many people get their HBO, Showtime and Starz through Amazon Channels. More will get Disney+, HBO and Showtime through Hulu. Apple will have another set of channels. Already, people experience streaming through Roku, and they added the ability to buy channels too. 

In other words, as Ben Thompson coined, the streamers are getting aggregated.

Eventually, the aggregators will offer bundles or discounts. Netflix, though, won’t be included because they have started pushing everyone to subscribe through the internet, instead of through those platforms. They did this because all those aggregators charge fees to sell the channels. I see two sub-optimal outcomes for Netflix as a result:

1. Eventually they get aggregated, which means they are “just” HBO.

2. They struggle to get awareness and presence outside the bundled aggregators.

Either choice is bad, and the sooner Netflix realizes it the better. (Hopefully more to come on this topic.)

Distribution: The good news

If avoiding digital bundlers is the downside case for Netflix, the upside case is integration with MVPD providers. Netflix announced that they will now be on AT&T’s devices that enable streaming integration. I’ve seen this work on Cox’s (via Comcast) Contour system, and it really does complement the cable bundle. Amazon Prime/Video is right behind them, and both are well ahead of the new streamers to catch up to their head start.

Competition: This is the low water mark for digital streaming.

Speaking of new SVODs, the other looming cloud over Netflix is the impending launch of the DAWNs: Disney, Apple, Warner-Media, and NBC-Universal. (Hat tip to Variety for coining.) Obviously, this will put pressure on Netflix to keep prices low to stay competitive—they are just below HBO in cost—and keep spending high to produce original content—they lap everyone when it comes to spending.

More interesting is how this will impact subscribers. While the launch of these streamers may inspire more cord cutting, which would benefit Netflix, the launch could also lead people to “cutflix” and trim the number of streaming options. But let’s move to our next section to discuss those implications.

Subscribers

How Many Subscribers Will Disney+ Grab?

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Netflix Q2 Earnings Report – A Lot Less for The Bulls

Back in the halcyon days of April, Netflix had just crushed another quarterly earnings report and it was riding high. In Decider, I said their report had something for both sides—for the haters and the lovers, skeptics and the supporters, bears and the bulls.

Well, Netflix finally had a bad earnings report.

The most fascinating thought, to me, was this one by Gene Munster:

“As much as I love the company, I just think its best days, unfortunately, are in fact behind it…I think we’re going to look back at this quarter as one of the pivotal moments in the Netflix story.”

If the laws of entropy are indeed correct, well at some point, every company’s best days are behind it. Unfortunately, we hardly ever realize this in the moment. This doesn’t mean the companies go out of business a la Blockbuster—IBM is well past it’s high water mark, but it’s still around and publicly traded—and it doesn’t even mean the stock price will decline—since stocks in general have gone up in general even faster than inflation. But at some point everything declines.

So is this the moment of Netflix’s high water market? Honestly, it may be. But we won’t know for sure until years from now.

To figure it out, I’m going to dig through Netflix’s last earnings report for the strategic insights I can find. As a reminder: I’m not here to give you stock advice. I’m here to critique strategy and Netflix’s quarterly reports are the best time to update my priors/data on Netflix’s strategy. Today, let’s discuss meta thoughts and content strategy; tomorrow I’ll go over strategy, subscriber and financial thoughts.

Meta Thoughts

At Least Netflix Gives Us Financial Data to Parse.

Let’s praise Netflix for one thing to start: producing this document in the first place. 

If Apple had bought Netflix in 2015, Netflix would have become an operating segment, which means that Apple could pick and choose selected numbers to release about their performance.  Likely they would have hidden as much as possible, they way they now hide iPhone sales. So I’d have much less data to judge them on.

To get a feel for this, take a gander at AT&T. We used to get a lot of HBO data every quarter—even as part of Warner-Media—but since AT&T acquired them, they went back to not reporting on HBO specifically. Meanwhile, if HBO were a standalone company, we’d have even more data than both previous reporting situations. The current situation leaves us guessing about their revenue, operating income and subscriber totals. We only get little tidbits if AT&T deigns to give it to us.

If we had to power rank the streaming platforms based on data released, right now it looks like this:

1. Youtube
2. Netflix
3. HBO
4. CBS All-Access
5. Hulu
6. Amazon Prime/Video/Studios

And all of them pale compared to the networks and TV channels of old who had TV ratings released every day and provided us financials. To Netflix’s credit, they give us their financials to make columns like this possible.

What is a “Netflix Killer” Anways?

Alan Wolk had a good article at TVRev clarifying that Netflix won’t actually disappear anytime soon, which is a statement I wholeheartedly agree with. Why, then, do so many headlines have “Netflix Killer” in them? 

Well, fuzziness in definitions. For a lot of folks, Netflix is one of the most over-priced companies in the world. They’re usually reacting to folks who think that Netflix is destined to conquer all of television. So you could reasonably say that any of the following end states is the “death of Netflix”, depending on your point of view:

1. Netflix suffers a few bad quarters and ends up with a price-to-earnings ratio around 20-25. (To show the gap, Netflix is currently at 123; most media firms trade between 15-20; Disney is currently a 20.5.)
2. Netflix is acquired by another larger digital company. (I recommend Facebook in this article.)
3. Netflix becomes the 3rd or 4th most subscribed OTT platform in America and/or the world.
4. Netflix goes out of business.

This is how I can think that Munster may be right—Netflix’s best days are behind them—and that Alan Wolk is right—there is a no “Netflix killer”. It depends on the definition. My personal opinion is that option 3 above is exceedingly likely, which means Netflix should valued like HBO, not like Amazon. Netflix is here to stay, but maybe not one of the most highly valued companies in the world, which may be death depending on how much stock you hold.

Content

How do you evaluate the biggest spender in Hollywood’s performance when they dole out so little data? By my count, they’ve released 17 “datecdotes” going back to the Q3 2018 earnings report. They’ve doled out a few more to news outlets over time, like this one to Reuters, this one to Variety or this tweet for Stranger Things last week. 

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Most Important Story of the Week and Other Good Reads – 12 July 2019: Netflix Has It’s First Merchandised Hit

Stranger Things season 3 came out for the Fourth of July weekend and I think it is safe to say it’s the biggest TV series in America, whether or not we truly believe Netflix’s latest datecdote or third parties, like Nielsen or Parrot Analytics.

If you really want to know if something is “popular”, I recommend waiting until people put their money where their eyes are. In other words, are businesses willing to stake their real world cash on a show?

In Stranger Things’s case, the answer is a resounding yes. Which means that: 1. Netflix has their biggest show and 2. I have a most important story of the week.

The Most Important Story of the Week – Netflix Has It’s First Licensed Merchandise Hit

How do you know Stranger Things has made it? Well, they have a Funko Pop.

Funko Website Image.png

Stranger Things actually has quite a few pops, and Funko is the type of company who can be choosey with who they do deals with. (Hence, this reporter’s quest for a Funko Pop for Bosch.) Given that Netflix finally got a Funko for a series they only just released data for, we can safely say this series is popular enough to get merchandise treatment. As far as I can tell, there aren’t any Amazon or Hulu Funkos, and previous to this, Netflix only had an Orange is the New Black pop. But those efforts pale in comparison to this Stranger Things take over.

For all the success of Netflix and Stranger Things, the future of licensing is far from assured for the streaming giant. Moreover, I’ve seen some misconceptions about product licensing and confusion. So let’s clear that up and dig into Netflix’s strategy just a bit.

Misconception 1: Product licensing is the golden goose.

The problem with product licensing is that Disney is so good at it. As I’ve written before, Disney has some really merchandise-able properties and expertise in licensing going back to the 1920s. Then Disney bought the other champion of product licensing, Star Wars/Lucasfilm. Thus, whenever licensing is mentioned, inevitably Disney is cited as the potential upside.

This is like comparing your pick up basketball game to Kawhi Leonard’s. Kawhi isn’t just good, he may be the best player in the world. Maybe you do play tenacious defense like him, but if you don’t have inhumanely long arms and athleticism, well you aren’t Kawhi. So don’t compare yourself to him. Disney is the same way: they have an entire division focused on licensing…do you? Disney takes up 50% of the shelf space in some retailers…can you compete with that? So sure, Disney’s upside is huge, but what is your real upside?

Licensing upside is also usually overhyped in the press. As I’ve written twice now (the explainer is really this piece on Lucasfilm), retail sales are usually cited by licensing folks, though a studio or network only takes home 5% or so of total sales. If you read that Star Wars has sold $20 billion in toys and licensed products, that means they “only” made $1 billion. Which is a huge number, but 20 times less than reported. You need to move a LOT of merchandise to make a dent in your revenue. I just found this Hollywood Reporter table showing Disney’s revenue by segment, and it helps get this point across:

Screen Shot 2019-07-15 at 12.46.29 PM.png

Misconception 2: Now that Netflix has conquered licensing, it can move kids products.

The irony of the success of Netflix’s success with Stranger Things is that it comes as I continue to read articles about how much trouble Netflix has had with product merchandise aimed at kids. For all the hype of primetime licensed merchandise, outside of Game of Thrones, kids series and movies dominate the sales.

Netflix faces three challenges in moving successfully into kids merchandise. First, they still don’t release ratings data. And while for adult products you can use alternative methods to triangulate demand–Google Trend data, social data, etc–those methods don’t work nearly as well for preschoolers who (I hope to god) aren’t using Twitter.

Second, the binge release/marketing model has proven extremely poor for licensing. All the episodes drop at one time, and then quickly decay as new shows are promoted to replace them. Disney Junior and PBS roll their shows out every day–on their own apps too–which keep kids more engaged with the properties on the TV side. On the feature film side, Disney and Universal roll out with 9 figure marketing campaigns. No kids property on Netflix gets that kind of love/spending.

Third, Netflix still doesn’t own a lot of their own kids content. A lot of their kids series–especially the Dreamworks series–are co-productions where the licensing rights are often owned by the owner of the IP. Hence, Netflix doesn’t have the rights to make products. (Tying back to Orange is the New Black, that was a series co-produced by Lionsgate, which probably helped make the Funko Pop.)

Misconception 3: Product-ties ins are not product licensing.

Stranger Things product roll outs have been much more about integrated marketing campaigns than true money-making consumer products. Which you’ve like seen on everything from KFC to Coca-Cola to Eggos. That’s free advertising for Netflix, which is a model Disney and Lucasfilm had also perfected over the years. While valuable, there is also much less risk for the CPG company, who doesn’t lose much by changing its packaging. If you want to know how much Stranger Things is potentially making for Netflix, ignore the Eggos and Coca-Colas, and even Windows 1, and look for shirts, toys, and games (both board and video).

Misconception 4: There is ONLY so much you can do in licensing in the first place.

The final point with Netflix is that Stranger Things surprised them in how big it got and how quickly. I’d say that Game of Thrones likely surprised HBO in the same way as they’d never had a franchise like that before. 

This speaks to the core point of licensing. You can’t force it on customers. When a series gets popular, it gets orders of magnitude more popular than competitors, and basically licenses itself. What you have to do is be prepared to take advantage of these series when they come, and Netflix is finally ready to do that. We’ll see if they can sustain it.

M&A Update – Univision Is Looking for Suitors

The winds of merging entertainment giants may be blowing again. For instance, if you look to Wall Street, America had a banner year in the first six months when it came to “deals”, which the New York Times uses to mean anything from mergers, acquisitions, divestitures and what not. For all the hype, though, as I’ve laid out repeatedly since last summer, we’ve seen hardly any M&A in entertainment.

Is this about to change? Maybe.

The scoop is from the WSJ, but I saw it first by Jessica Toonkel in The Information (and I also saw it quoted in The Ankler). Basically, the one sentence hint is that Univision executives are at the Sun Valley conference looking for potential buyers and have hired investment banks to do the due diligence. And they should have a few. Univision would complement nearly every media conglomerate, except Comcast-NBCU (who owns Telemundo). Disney’s films already do well with Hispanic audiences. CBS needs more OTT services for the future retransmission wars. And Warner…nevermind AT&T is likely out of money.

Meanwhile, the news that Univision wants to sell itself makes this leak of monster Up Front sales records a little more self-interested.

Other Contenders for Most Important Story

Warner Media’s Streaming Service Has a Name (and Friends)

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Who is a “creative” in Hollywood? My Creative-to-Business Spectrum

When I worked at a studio, I found it funny that we referred to our development execs as the creatives. Not that they were creating the shows, but compared to finance or strategy folks, development execs were way more creative. They read scripts all day, took tons of pitches, provided story notes and helped decide who to cast in the show. That’s pretty creative work, when you think about it. 

So I had to cut them some slack if they couldn’t quantify everything; they’re creatives!

I say funny, because along the way I heard some talent on one of our shows—a showrunner, so the top writer/producer—refer to our development executives as the “suits” at our studio. And, they weren’t wrong?

I’d never considered the development execs the suits, but if your only point of contact with our studio is a development exec, then they seem like the business side of the house, don’t they?

It all depends on your point of view for who is a creative, doesn’t it? The director probably seems like a suit to an actor—an authoritarian bossing them around—while that same director drives the producer crazy with their creative demands. Meanwhile, the production folks are just trying to get shows made, which makes them seem like creative types to the finance folks just trying to get everyone paid. 

As I was starting my website—writing the first articles and sketching out a business plan—I set about to define my target audience. I knew I wanted to target the business side of Hollywood, but thinking about “what is business versus creative?”, I realized there isn’t just two sides on the “creative vs business” battle, but it’s a spectrum. 

Here is that spectrum that I jotted down and eventually turned into a Powerpoint slide.

Creative vs Biz Spectrum

For the most part I think everyone on this line would call everyone to their right a “suit”. Which means business. So I like this spectrum.

Some quick insights

Definitions

A lot of this depends on what I define as “creative” versus “ business” in the first place. I used those terms since that seems to echo the jargon in the industry. I debated calling this left brain-right brain, though I’ve never liked that terminology since apparently the science behind it isn’t great. I also debated some other definitions (see below), but this worked best.

And the reason I think it works is it captures two inherent tensions, in my mind. First, who cares most about making the product? The closer you get to it, the more you are talent, actively crafting the final product. A creative. On the other side, who cares most about the bottom line? Well, the business folks. If you want a rule of thumb, ask this question, “Who would care the most about going over budget?” The more you care, the more “business” you are.

I debated calling this the “qualitative versus quantitative, but that doesn’t work either.

Or you could call it the “gut versus data” debate. But that doesn’t get at the difference between the business folks and the creatives, really. Some business folks eschew numbers, sort of like the development execs I mentioned above. That’s a pretty qualitative group of people—in my experience—though they are more business than screenwriters.

Creativity is the pretty clear driver on the left. And the opposite of creativity isn’t data. Data analytics and math actually require a lot of creativity. Not that business should be the death of creativity, but it’s what we all assume.

Not Included Jobs

These jobs aren’t left out because they don’t deserve a spot, but because I ran out of space. And for some, I didn’t know where to fit them in. As is, this was a pretty clean line of the people involved in getting a piece of content out there in the world. 

I did want to get in the below the line folks—like set design and make up and wardrobe—but again couldn’t get them to fit neatly. They would be on the more creative side, though to the right of some talent because they start and end with a budget. Precisely where, I’m not sure.

I had no idea where to put production assistants. Probably near the directors—which is where many want to end up—but they aren’t really creatives, just following orders. Programming folks balance both and are probably in the middle. Script readers are likely on the creative end, as they are usually aspiring screenwriters themselves.

Did the spectrum help with the website?

Definitely. I knew my goal was to skew towards the business end of the spectrum, but this helped put what jobs are in that side of the spectrum. And how close or far they are from the creative end. While I think everyone in Hollywood could learn something from my website, the business side could probably apply the most.

And it helped convince me this is a niche I could grow. There is a gap, in my opinion, between investor-focused publishers, who mainly parse 10Ks for stock price information, and the Hollywood trades, who focus on the who is cast in what.

My Questions for Netflix’s 2019 Q1 Earnings Call

I did something fun for the first time last week: I emailed questions for a corporate earnings call. Obviously, it was Netflix.

I’ll let you know why.. (And I’m under no illusions that I’ll actually have one of these questions asked.) Normally, if you asked me if earnings calls matter, I’d say no. Sure, the letter to shareholders will have some data, and the quarterly reports matter to investors, but the presentation is the most self-interested presentation imaginable. It would be like listening to just the closing statement of the prosecution in a trial. You’d get a lot more guilty verdicts, don’t you think?

But I have a much larger project I hope to unveil sometime this year where I make a “power ranking” of streaming/bundling services. From ad-supported to sports, anything digital video I will rank in one definitive list. Like sports power rankings, if you go to ESPN or any sports website nowadays.

To build that ranking requires good information, like all good decisions. And right now the company that has the most black holes in data, for me, is Netflix. Since I’ve written about their data and even coined a phrase about how selectively they pull it (read here for “datecdotes”), I naturally had the most questions for Netflix, and they convinced me to finally write an email.

To be fair—meaning unbiased across all digital video companies—I hope to roll out this type of feature semi-regularly with other digital video companies. Google, Apple and Disney are the most relevant, though Disney gets a brief reprieve with all the information they dropped on us last week. Youtube deserves a ton of questions and so does Apple with their paucity of information.

With that preamble, onto the questions. I have three big areas: Viewership (to see how valuable their content is), activity (to gauge how subscribers interact with the site) and subscribers (to probe their business model a bit). After each question, I’ll explain my reasoning in parentheses. These explanations I didn’t send!

Viewership

– In the last earnings call, Netflix reported that Bird Box was viewed by 80 million customers over the first four weeks. During that time, was it the most viewed movie on your platform? Over 2019 as a whole, was it the most viewed movie on your platform? Have any Star Wars, Marvel or Disney Animated films had more viewers than Bird Box since their respective launches?

(As we look to the battlefield of 2020, churn is the name of the game. Is the most popular content on Netflix leaving? I believe it is with either Friends (or other long running TV shows like it) or all the Disney content. This question helps get at that for the movies side, especially the Disney content.)

– In the Q3 earnings call of last year, you said that 80 million unique customer accounts had watched one or more “Summer of Love” romantic comedies on your site, was that using the same standard as Bird Box, where you counted “watched” as 70% completion of a film?

(If Netflix answers this, I’d be shocked. My guess is they moved to the 70% threshold after minor pushback on their Q3 report. They knew they had to explain the calculation, but waited for a film that did well enough, like Bird Box, to justify it. Still, if they say, “No”, then that “Summer of Love” number can be severely discounted. Likely they won’t ever answer either way.)

– How many people watched The Christmas Chronicles? Or The Ballad of Buster Scruggs or Private Life? How many hours have customers viewed for any of this content? (You reported in the last earnings call that you do track hours viewed on site.)

(Again, this is to help flesh out the context of whatever numbers they do release. And the scale of losses. This is the best example of how one-sided an earnings report is. If there were a “defendant” making the bear case, these are the numbers their defense lawyers would seize on to make their case, to continue the prosecutor announcement from earlier.)

Activity

– In 2018, what was your monthly active users? What has been your monthly active users in 2019?

(Monthly active users is the metrics that “feels” right for me when it comes to truly understanding the people who love your service. I don’t have data, but my gut that it explains usage best. Monthly users are the people who devoured some piece of your content in their entertainment diet. Subscribers is not that. If I were “entertainment czar” all streamers would have to release this.)

– You reported the service “averages” 100 million hours a day of viewing in the US in a month. How much does that average vary by month? What does the time on site distribution look like by customer decile? What was the annual daily average?

(We all hate averages, don’t we? Well I do. They don’t tell use anything. And since someone quoted the “2 hours per day” number to me for Netflix usage recently, it made me want to know a lot more about it. Also, related to this is the variance overtime. December happens to be a huge month for Netflix, so touting numbers from December is deliberately overselling the annual performance.)

Subscribers

– In your Q4 report, you mentioned a net add of 29 million customer accounts. What was the number of gross adds versus net? How does this breakdown internationally versus US? You used to report gross adds in 2011, why did you move away from this metric?

(I didn’t know Netflix used to report this, and this is the type of number they should report, if you follow the standard, “Does the CEO get this information?” Because Reed Hastings definitely does. [I love that standard, by the way.] Again, churn is the name of the game, and the great thing about Netflix’s 60 million or subscribers is that it grows steadily every year. Which gives an illusion of stability the gross number would help understand. International is even more curious for me.)

– What is the total unique subscriber base you have had in the US since you launched streaming?

(My final way to get at the churn questions. Say Netflix had had 140 million unique subscribers in the US since launching in 2008. Some of those are duplicate accounts—people who signed up, then switched—surely. But some aren’t. That gets to the idea that it isn’t like Netflix is convincing people to try Netflix for the first time, but to come back. Which is fascinating, to me, and a different business challenge.)