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From ‘Severance’ to ‘Prey,’ We Still Don’t Know How Many People Are Watching Streaming Shows

Stephen Silver

Actor Ben Stiller, who is an executive producer and director of the Apple TV+ series “Severance,” made some news this week when he revealed in an interview that even he is in the dark over exactly how many people have watched his critically acclaimed and Emmy-nominated show.

The first season of the series — which earned strong reviews, 14 Emmy nominations, and a second-season renewal — presumably was watched by a considerable number of people, but Stiller told Decider that he isn't sure how many.

“Yeah, but because they don’t tell, it’s really weird. They sort of give you kind of an idea. But it’s not like ratings or box office numbers or anything like that. It’s like graphs and charts that are relative,” Stiller said in the interview. “They don’t tell you the numbers. It’s really weird … They basically say, ‘Yeah, this is doing well.’ … It’s just that’s how, I guess, all the streamers do it.”

Stiller’s comments reiterate something that’s been true for a long time: There isn’t really a definitive way to measure exactly how many people are watching streaming shows or movies. We already knew that most streaming services don’t put out such figures publicly, but Stiller’s interview makes clear that the creators of the shows themselves are in the dark too — even if they’re super-famous movie stars.

Whether or not fans know how many people watched a show isn’t that big of a deal, but it can make a huge difference for the creators working on the series. Viewership numbers matter in all sorts of ways, from which shows get renewed and canceled, to how much talent is paid, to whether or not the showrunner lands a big development deal.

Without complete information, what we have to go on is the work of a few independent agencies and research firms. Nielsen, for instance, releases a weekly top ten list of the most popular streaming movies and shows. But it uses a “minutes watched” metric that doesn’t measure the exact number of viewers or eyeballs, and while Prime Video, Disney+, Hulu, Netflix, and Apple TV+ are included, the other major streamers — including HBO Max, Paramount+ and Peacock — are not.

Other firms, like Parrot Analytics, Samba TV, JustWatch, and Reelgood, also release their own metrics. But none are absolutely definitive.

Our other way of receiving information, albeit incomplete, is what streaming services announce themselves. Netflix, of course, has a top ten list right in its interface and streamers will often tout the performance of a specific movie or show via press release, although that information is often incomplete and cherrypicked for promotional purposes.

Disney, for instance, announced this week that “Prey,” a new 20th Century Studios movie from the “Predator” franchise, is “the No. 1 premiere on Hulu to date, including all film and TV series debuts.” Disney also called the movie “the most watched film premiere on Star+ in Latin America and Disney+ under the Star banner in all other territories, based on hours watched in the first three days of its release.”

Disney did not, however, state how many hours were watched, nor give any type of ballpark figure as to exactly how many people watched “Prey.” When a movie released in theaters has a huge opening weekend at the box office, there’s a universally accepted number of how much money that film made, but currently, there is no streaming equivalent.

In an age when even the slightest disappointment can send a streaming service’s stock reeling, it is understandable that the massive corporations behind these streamers want to keep their proprietary data to themselves. However, when the livelihood, careers, and compensation of creators is tied directly to a show’s success, it does seem like it would behoove all involved to pull the curtain back just a little bit.

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