Netflix is seen by many as the future of television, or at the very least, a major player in whatever television is becoming. The company recently announced that it is now available in more than 130 countries, and it has a portfolio of popular shows like Jessica Jones and Narcos. But not everyone is impressed, apparently.
Take NBCUniversal executive Alan Wurtzel, head of research and media development for the network. During a recent press event as part of the Television Critic Association’s annual conference, Wurtzel said that traditional television is doing just fine, and that “the reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated,” according to AdWeek.
But wait—isn’t cord-cutting behavior accelerating, with more and more millennials either quitting cable or not subscribing in the first place? Aren’t subscriber numbers for the major networks, and even hard-core TV experiences like ESPN, down significantly? And isn’t Netflix and binge-watching of its shows partly to blame?
All of that may be true, but Wurtzel says he isn’t concerned. And to understand why, you have to know one unusual thing about Netflix (NFLX), which is that it doesn’t release any ratings data about how its shows are doing.
Cable companies and TV networks are used to having lots of data about the popularity of a show: The “cumes,” or cumulative viewership numbers, the prime-time breakdown, etc. from companies like Nielsen. That’s how everyone figures out whether something is a hit or a dud. But Netflix doesn’t provide any numbers at all, so no one actually knows how its shows are performing compared with traditional television.
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Wurtzel, however, who handles analytics for NBCUniversal, says a company called Symphony Advanced Media has come up with a way to reverse-engineer some numbers about Netflix shows by using audio-recognition technology. The app listens to what people are watching on television or other devices and recognizes shows based on their audio profile.
According to this software, Wurtzel said, Netflix shows like Jessica Jones and Master of None get viewer numbers that are comparable to traditional TV shows like How to Get Away with Murder and Modern Family—that is, between 4 and 5 million viewers in the 18-49 demographic.
After binge-watching some of a show for a couple of weeks, the NBCUniversal executive said the numbers also show that most viewers stop and then “people are watching TV the way that God intended. The impact goes away.” This is because Netflix’s business model is not based on value over time, but only on making you “write a check for next month,” he added.
This may all be just a show of bravado from NBCUniversal in front of TV critics, but it also feels a little like whistling past the graveyard. Not that NBC is going to suddenly disappear any time soon, but Netflix and the up-ending of traditional linear TV viewing is a reality, and a growing one.
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This year alone, Netflix says it plans to make 10 movies, 30 children’s shows, 12 documentaries, and 10 stand-up comedy specials. For growing numbers of younger consumers, television more or less means Netflix (and maybe ESPN or HBO).
More than anything else, NBCUniversal’s viewpoint on Netflix as a competitive threat sounds a lot like the reaction that Blockbuster had to Netflix when it started doing DVD rentals, and we know how that ended. NBC is experimenting with its own streaming-video services—including Seeso, the comedy-focused channel it recently launched for $3.99 a month—but it feels like too little and probably too late.
Netflix, of course, could help lay comments about the relative popularity of its shows to rest by releasing some traditional viewership numbers. But that doesn’t seem likely to happen, for a variety of reasons. I’ve asked Netflix for comment on Wurtzel’s analysis, and will update this post if and when I get a response.