High fantasy series The Witcher has made headlines as one of Netflix's biggest debuts ever. 76 million households 'chose to watch' the show, and Netflix is now confident in its longevity. But the devil's in the gritty details, because the phrasing Netflix uses skirts the traditional meaning of the word 'watched'.
Netflix has typically been very secretive with their viewer numbers unless they're very happy with results. Such was the case with The Witcher, whose viewer numbers were released alongside You (estimated at 54 million), The Crown (over 21 million) and a handful of films including 6 Underground (83 million), The Irishman (64 million), Marriage Story (32 million), The Two Popes (29 million) and Klaus (40 million) in a recent shareholder letter (and shared with Gizmodo Australia via email).
Important to note is that Netflix's viewer numbers are not verified by any independent body. This is unlike traditional media, which is typically vetted by audience measurement tools like Unitam in Australia, a metering system that captures the home viewing behaviour of pre-determined sample groups. With no 'higher power' to answer to, streaming services often turn to their own self-determined measures for reporting viewer numbers.
In the case of Facebook, their definition of a 'view' is "the number of times that [a] video played for 3 seconds or for 97% of its total length if it's shorter than 3 seconds," according to the Facebook for Business hub. It should be noted that this definition does not exclude autoplay videos, indicating that people who have, by-definition 'viewed' a video may not have 'chosen' to view or engage with it in the first place.
Netflix has skirted this controversial measure with changes to their metrics being implemented on Wednesday. Rather than focus on viewer numbers, the new metric focuses on households that 'chose to watch' a program, regardless of follow through. In this case, Netflix's measurement only tracks those who 'chose to watch' a piece of media for a period of two minutes or more.
"We are trying to give a clear signal on the popularity of our biggest hits, and 2 minutes is much better at doing this because it doesn’t bias toward shorter form content. So we think 'chose to watch' is more meaningful," a Netflix spokesperson told Gizmodo Australia via email.
In its recent shareholder letter, Netflix confirmed this approach. "Given that we now have titles with widely varying lengths - from short episodes (e.g. Special at around 15 minutes) to long films (e.g. The Highwaymen at 132 minutes), we believe that reporting households viewing a title based on 70% of a single episode of a series or of an entire film, which we have been doing, makes less sense," Netflix said.
Given that The Witcher is an eight-episode series, with episodes that clock in at around the 50-minute mark, this means that viewers would only have to watch two minutes of a 400-minute series (or 0.5% of the show) for it to count in Netflix's viewer metrics. This is how The Witcher's debut was measured at 76 million household views.
0.5% of The Witcher is just enough to catch maybe a bit of boob or a snatch of Henry Cavill's big arms, but not enough to form a valuable, meaningful impression. So while Netflix may report the show as one of their 'biggest' debuts ever, its metrics don't reflect longterm viewer engagement, and shouldn't be taken as such.
Rather, 76 million households tuned in for a period of at least two minutes to check out The Witcher on Netflix. It's currently unknown how many watched beyond that or even liked it.