Netflix, You, and the Hits No One Knows Are Hits

Forty million people watched You, according to the network. Could it be that the monoculture isn’t dead—we just don’t know about it when it happens?

A still from You with the Netflix logo superimposed.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Netflix.

Last week, Netflix, which has historically guarded its ratings data the way a dragon guards its treasure, released a letter to shareholders that contained some eye-popping viewership figures. According to the streaming service, You, the slick series about a hunky emo psycho killer, has been watched by 40 million member households in the four weeks since Netflix imported it from Lifetime. Sex Education, a witty high school sex dramedy, is also on track to be watched by 40 million member households in its first four weeks. The service said the Sandra Bullock movie Bird Box would be watched by 80 million member households over the same amount of time. (At the price of an average American movie ticket, about $9, that’s a Black Panther–sized audience.) Bodyguard (a coproduction with the BBC), the Italian-language series Baby, and the Turkish-language The Protector were each watched by 10 million member households in their first four weeks. That is to say, based on audience, a Netflix show in Turkish would have landed in network TV’s Top 10.

These numbers were presumably the flashiest numbers that Netflix had to offer, but, hot damn, they are flashy—even if they should be treated with much skepticism. For one thing, of Netflix’s 139 million global subscribers, only about 59 million are American, something to bear in mind when comparing Netflix’s figures with the strictly domestic ratings of most linear channels. Another sticking point: What constitutes “watching”? According to Netflix, the numbers reflect households where someone watched at least 70 percent of one episode—given the Netflix model, it seems likely that most people started with Episode 1—but this doesn’t tell us how many people stuck with it, or what the average rating for the season was, which is, again, an important metric for linear channels.

Netflix, of course, has every interest in rounding up. Still, the idea that the service could get anything close to 40 million people to sample a show is insane. Any episode of television that came close to these numbers on a terrestrial channel would be a cultural juggernaut. According to HBO, 30 million people watch every episode of Game of Thrones across all of its platforms. (And this number, despite being more transparently gathered than Netflix’s, is still the last, least trusted figure in most articles about Game of Thrones ratings.) Even if you halve You’s theoretical 40 million, that puts it a stone’s throw from the ratings for the very first episode of Friends, which was watched by 21.5 million people.

Anyone who has been on Twitter or the cultural corners of the internet in the last few weeks knows that You had become a “thing,” a show that was suddenly “everywhere,” one of the fidget spinners of television. But even for those clued in to You, the idea that it was watched by 40 million people? Get outta here! (This is even more true for Sex Education, which does not feel to me, anyway, like it has been quite so “everywhere.”) Forty million people just is not a number we’re used to seeing anymore. Forty million should get you on the cover of Time magazine. Forty million should mean that my mother and my uncle and my grandmother have heard about it. Forty million should mean you’re the monoculture, long considered killed by cultural fragmentation. Could it be that the monoculture still exists, but we just don’t know what it is?

Ratings are not just a reflection of how many people are watching a TV show. They are not just a piece of data about something that has already happened. They are also a piece of information that changes what happens, by defining whether we think of something as a hit, which has a knock-on effect on how much attention gets paid to that show, not just by other prospective viewers, but by the media. (Think how much more has been written on You now that we know 40 million people may have watched it.)

Consider, for example, how something like last year’s reboot of Roseanne might have played out if it had been a Netflix series. It would have been covered like crazy before its premiere and then, in the absence of any information about its ratings at all, would have become, like, what? The Ranch? So much of the early frenzy surrounding Roseanne had to do with its enormous-for-our-era ratings, and what those ratings meant. By the same token, years ago I heard—and this is pure rumor and scuttlebutt I am sharing because it’s a fun thought exercise—that at that time Narcos was Netflix’s most popular series. Where is Narcos in the cultural conversation? How would that position have changed if it was widely known that, say, 15 million people watch its every season?

Finding out from Netflix, after the fact, that a show is an unexpected giant hit is a completely new order of operations, evidence of the ongoing existence of mass culture we don’t even know we’re participating in. For the user, the discovery of Netflix shows often feels like it’s happening through pure word of mouth, technologically boosted. This makes every show feel like a personal discovery, or the discovery of your peer group, your social media network, your bubble. These shows may, cumulatively, have the audience of a huge hit, but they feel narrow. They’re niche mass culture.

Netflix has often talked about how well it is positioned to serve specific niches, in a way that broadcast networks cannot. So long as a show appeals to some discrete group of subscribers, it’s worth it for Netflix. Ad-supported television, in contrast, has always privileged some audience members over others. The infamous 18–49 demo was the metric that mattered to advertisers, and so that mattered to broadcast television. This could have the totally crazy-making effect of turning older people and younger people into less desirable audience members. (NBC, back in 2012, for example, canceled the Kathy Bates series Harry’s Law, which had relatively strong total ratings, because its audience was too old. Netflix just renewed a second season of The Kominsky Method.)

But younger people in particular seem to be working overtime for Netflix. Though there was no demographic breakdown included in the ratings disclosure, it’s the common wisdom that viewership of You and Sex Education (and 13 Reasons Why, before them) is largely driven by teenagers, for whom Netflix seems to have supplanted all of television. (Anecdotally, You, like so many teen-appealing shows before it, has crossed over into adults.) Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Felicity, say, were once dismissed as shows for teenage girls, while The Sopranos and Breaking Bad accrued gravitas because of their associations with grown men. That comparison had to do not only with society’s sexism but with the way ratings privileged those grown men over those teenage girls—which is another way of saying that ratings don’t just reflect what is happening, they change it.

I continue to hate Netflix’s refusal to share ratings information; I think it contributes to the myth of Netflix. And this small, highly selective ratings release definitely contributes to the myth of Netflix. But, whatever the actual numbers, by crowing about the success of You, Sex Education, a female-led movie, and three foreign TV shows, at least Netflix is dispensing with the idea that there is some kind of audience that is preferable to have than another kind of audience. As long as you’ve got a credit card number—or can convince your parents to type theirs in—you’re valuable.