Tensions between Netflix and US television networks escalated this weekend after industry executives expressed mounting frustration over Netflix's refusal to disclose ratings.
At a Television Critics Association event, NBCUniversal introduced viewership figures provided by an outside firm that suggested several of Netflix's shows fall in line with broadcast and cable shows, implying that traditional television remains vibrant. John Landgraf, chief executive of the cable network FX, picked up the theme, saying it was "ridiculous" that Netflix did not release viewership numbers.
Netflix's chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, shot back Sunday, saying the numbers provided by NBC were "remarkably inaccurate" and asking why NBC would spend time and energy to "talk about our ratings."
"Maybe because it's more fun than talking about NBC ratings," he said.
The pitched back-and-forth occurred as ratings are falling for broadcast and cable networks while Netflix's offerings of original programs are growing. Sarandos said the streaming service would spend $US6 ($8.76 billion) billion on content this year, and original scripted programming would be part of that budget.
Television executives have been frustrated because Sarandos has at times suggested Netflix shows would fare better than what is on cable and broadcast television. Last month, for instance, he said the Netflix show "Narcos" would be the most-viewed show on cable, not HBO's "Game of Thrones."
"Netflix brought it on themselves when they make assertions like their show would be the highest-rated cable show," Gary Newman, co-chief executive of the Fox Television Group, said in an interview.
Likewise, Landgraf said in an interview, "If Ted doesn't give ratings, he shouldn't then be saying, 'This is the biggest hit in the history of blah blah blah.' He shouldn't say something is successful in quantitative terms unless you're willing to provide data and a methodology behind those statements. You can't have it both ways."
The battle over ratings began when Alan Wurtzel, NBCUniversal's head of research, said Wednesday that he was confronting the "800-pound gorilla" and gave the news media what he described as a "Netflix reality check."
Ratings, particularly among 18- to 49-year-olds, dictate how much money cable and broadcast networks make from advertisers.
Wurtzel provided data from a firm named Symphony Advanced Media, which uses audio content recognition installed on phones to recognise what is being watched and when. According to Symphony's data, the Netflix show "Jessica Jones" was viewed by 4.8 million people within the first 35 days of its premiere in the 18- to 49-year-old bracket important to advertisers. In that demographic, Wurtzel said that, according to Symphony's data, "Master of None" had 3.9 million viewers, "Narcos" had 3.2 million and Amazon's "The Man in the High Castle" had 2.1 million viewers.
Wurtzel said the data showed that when streaming-service shows debut, viewership is strong and then peters out after a few weeks before viewers return to watching cable or network television. "My only point is I don't believe there's enough stuff on Netflix that is broad enough and is consistent enough to affect us in a meaningful way on a regular basis," Wurtzel said.
Newman, of Fox, was particularly interested in this.
"If you look at the data, it's very compressed and it falls off," he said. "Our shows tend to be in the cultural conversation for three to four months at a time. And I think that's powerful to our advertising partners."
He also said the numbers were "within the mid- to upper level of cable dramas and within the ballpark of what I'd expect." Landgraf said the data did not "feel rigorous enough."
And Sarandos pushed back hard on Symphony's data, particularly its focus on 18- to 49-year-olds since Netflix sells subscriptions, not advertising off a specific demographic.
"The methodology and the measurement and the data itself don't reflect any sense of reality of anything that we keep track of," Sarandos said. "That could be because 18- to 49-year-old viewing is so insignificant to us I can't even tell how many 18- to 49-year-old members we have. We don't track it."
Sarandos, instead, pointed to the number of Netflix subscribers, which he said is about 70 million worldwide, and 43 million in the United States. In keeping with his public stance that Netflix would never release ratings, he said he did not want to engage in a "weekly arms race."
"Once we give a number for a show, then every show will be benchmarked off of that show even though they were built sometimes for very specific audiences," he said.
He added: "There is a very natural inclination to say, 'Relative to this show, this show is a failure.' That puts a lot of creative pressure on the talent."
The New York Times