President Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey in the Netflix Original Series 'House of Cards'
Courtesy of Netflix

Netflix is making money on something more abstract than ratings.

By David Z. Morris
March 5, 2016

Season 4 of Netflix’s House of Cards dropped yesterday, and while Netflix notoriously doesn’t release viewership numbers, Mark Fahey at CNBC makes an educated guess that about 5 million people will watch at least the first episode within the next 30 days.

Fahey extrapolates from a few of the data points we do have about Netflix nflx —some from the company, some from surveys or other secondary sources. In the fourth quarter of last year, the service was just short of hitting 75 million subscribers, which is estimated to have since grown by as much as 7 million. According to a third-party survey, about 6.5% of Netflix subscribers watched at least one episode of Season 3 of “House of Cards” within 30 days, leading to Fahey’s 5 million-viewer estimate for the new season.

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To put that largely hypothetical number in perspective, compare it to last week’s ratings for a selection of network and cable shows (courtesy of TV by the Numbers):

  • Republican Presidential Debate (Fox News)—16.8 Million
  • Grey’s Anatomy (ABC)—7.67 Million
  • The Family (ABC)—5.74 Million
  • WWE Smackdown (USA)—2.5 Million
  • Vikings (History Channel)—1.9 Million

The Family is a particularly notable comparison here. It’s a debut drama, with little to none of the kind of social media buzz surrounding House of Cards—and its 5.75 million broadcast viewers was considered fairly mediocre by industry watchers.

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This isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison, though, since Netflix’s subscription model is fundamentally different from conventional TV’s advertising foundation. As media researcher Jason Mittell pointed out in The Atlantic last month, Netflix subscribers are buying “the brand itself,” driven by opaque critical and social buzz. Cable and broadcast networks, by contrast, rely on hard numbers to sell a totally different product—viewers’ eyeballs.

The surprising conclusion? Netflix subscribers don’t actually have to watch House of Cards for the company to make money from it. It’s much more important that viewers and the media (like, say, Fortune) spend a lot of time talking about it.

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