Netflix says more than 45 million accounts have watched 'Bird Box.' But the figure needs an asterisk

Netflix seems to be flying so high over the reception to its just-released psychological horror film "Bird B...

Posted: Dec 30, 2018 5:20 AM
Updated: Dec 30, 2018 5:20 AM

Netflix seems to be flying so high over the reception to its just-released psychological horror film "Bird Box" that it's breaking a long-held tradition of staying largely mum on viewership.

The streaming service on Friday said more than 45 million "accounts" have watched the Sandra Bullock-led film in its first week of release, the "best first 7 days ever for a Netflix film," the company boasted in a Tweet.

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It's an impressive figure, certainly, but one that also requires a "Star Wars" scroll-worth of disclaimers, qualifiers and questions -- several of them immediately posed by journalists and TV industry rivals, who have been frustrated by the streaming giant's unwillingness to divulge such information.

Central to all of it, too, is a greater conversation about transparency. Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and all the rest fighting for streaming domination share a dedication to operating as though they're immune to the numbers-driven nature of the content business.

To be fair, it's because they sort of have been, but how much longer will that last?

Rebecca Keegan of The Hollywood Reporter questioned the value of Netflix's data in the absence of further context.

"Does Susanne Bier's agent use this data as leverage on her next film? How does a traditional studio considering her for a project view it?" Keegan asked on Twitter.

Bier directed "Bird Box."

Giving people a rare peek behind the curtain, even a flattering one, will only renew calls for greater transparency by journalists who report on the service and those who do business with it.

The watch-it-your-way flexibility of streaming presents challenges to anyone trying to draw a comparison to traditional film in regards to audience.

It would be difficult, for example, to say what the activity of 45 million accounts equates to in traditional box office terms. It's also unclear -- though presumable -- that the number reflects accounts that have accessed the film globally. (Netflix is currently available in more than 190 countries.)

Exactly how Netflix qualifies what counts as a viewing is another question. Does the figure account for those who accidentally play the film from an auto-play option? Does it log "viewers" who only watch a few seconds or the entire film?

And is there any way to say what portion of that audience would make the effort of going to a theater and buying a ticket to "Bird Box"? From the comfort of a Netflix household, the time and financial investments are far less.

Finally, there's no independent, third-party sourcing involved, a la the Nielsen ratings. As CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl somewhat skeptically tweeted, the numbers were "independently verified by ... uh, Netflix."

Streaming services have gotten away with opting not to share the abundance of viewership information to which they have access, but as more traditional corners of the entertainment industry feel increasingly jealous of their 45 million-plus pairs of eyes, the blindfold may be coming off.

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