When it was announced that Netflix's Bird Box was watched by over 45 million accounts within the first month and a half of its release, there was a collective jaw drop. To put that into perspective, that's almost twice as many views as the Oscars got last year, which is one of the few remaining monocultural moments in America—that is very much on the decline. And there was a similar reaction when Netflix announced that 40 million households tuned in to both You and Sex Education within the first four weeks of those shows streaming. But did that many accounts really watch the film? According to one network TV executive, there's no way.
Those numbers are "not a remotely accurate representation of a longform program performance" per John Landgraf, FX CEO, as The Hollywood Reporter notes. Landgraf predicts that the number of people who watched You is actually closer to one-fifth of what Netflix claims, which he says is supported by Nielsen's ratings. “An average audience of 8 million viewers is good, but it’s not as good as 40 million,” he said, “which would make you the number one show on television.”
Landgraf also went in on why inflated ratings are so damaging to the ecosystem of TV. “I don’t begrudge them their existence,” he said of Netflix. “What I don't tend to like about Silicon Valley is how the search ecosystem is Google, the social media ecosystem is Facebook. I don’t think that ‘winner takes all’ mentality is good for the world. I don’t think it’s good for America.”
While it's hard not to remove the bias of someone who works at a competing company, Landgraf is bringing up a valid point: What actually counts as a view for Netflix? Back at the end of last year, a Netflix rep tried to answer this question revealing that the company only takes into account a view after it “surpasses 70 percent of the total running time (including credits),” per The Verge. The rep also went as far to say that they only count views from one account once, even though multiple people may have watched a program on one account.
But according to Cheat Sheet, Netflix counts views once a show is started, which could be as short as "five to ten seconds."
Either way, Nielsen—the traditional TV ratings calculator—has also come out against Netflix's own ratings system. According to Nielsen, only 8 million have watched You and just 3.1 million have watched Sex Education. Nielsen even disputed Bird Box views, counting just 26 million. Yet, there is a problem with Nielsen, too: It only accounts views that don't occur on the app or computers, which is largely how people experience Netflix's programs. So what is the truth, here? Until there is a unified ratings calculator we will likely be as blind to these views as Girl and Boy—but as the adage goes, the truth is somewhere in between.