Hey, guess what? Some 40 million household accounts have been streaming Stranger Things‘ third season! It’s true, Netflix says so. They also say, via tweet, that 18.2 million of those accounts have already finished the new season. Pretty cool, right? It certainly sounds impressive. But is it? Like justice for Barb, the answer to that question may be forever elusive.
For a bit of perspective, the finale of the wildly popular Big Bang Theory had slightly more than 23 million viewers and the final episode of Game of Thrones had more than 19 million. Netflix also claims that the Stranger Things viewership numbers are higher than “any other film or series in its first four days.” Yet without many other statistics to compare it to, those numbers seem somewhat empty.
Netflix has always been tight-lipped about its viewership numbers. That’s fine. It’s their service; they can release whatever data they want about it. But in trying to drum up hype by using numbers without context, they often signify nothing. And when you compare the figures to the few other stats out there, the picture gets even murkier.
Last year, when everyone stuck at home for the holidays was watching Bird Box, the streaming giant tweeted that more than 45 million accounts had watched the film, which was the “best first seven days ever for a Netflix film!” Recently, writer-director Ava DuVernay tweeted that the streaming giant informed her that the miniseries When They See Us had been accessed by more than 23 million accounts. Netflix also tweeted that the series You and Sex Education had been viewed by 40 million accounts in their first months of release. All of those are big-sounding numbers, but what does it mean that 40 million accounts have turned on a show like Stranger Things in a span of four days, and that 45 million had done the same with the film Bird Box? Well, it means viewers will probably get another season of Stranger Things, but not much else. Adjust the time frame and the parameters—best first 23 days for an original miniseries!—and any figure can sound impressive.
Netflix has nearly 150 million subscribers. That means about a quarter of Netflix accounts have tuned in to Stranger Things since its launch on July 4. That’s … not bad? It’s truly hard to tell. It also means a slightly larger fraction watched Bird Box last year, but a smaller one watched When They See Us. In other words, what the public knows is that millions of people watch Netflix shows and movies, but how they compare to all the other programming on the streaming service—particularly how they stack up to popular non-originals like the soon-to-depart Friends and The Office—remains a mystery.
In all fairness, Netflix isn’t alone in its reluctance to share data. Hulu doesn’t give out regular viewership numbers for its popular shows like The Handmaid’s Tale. (Though it did reveal at the end of last year that the show’s second season opener was its most-streamed episode.) Netflix doesn’t have advertisers to appease, so there may not be a strong business reason for the streaming giant to release numbers. That said, Netflix has promised to reveal more specifics in the future in an attempt to be “more fully transparent.” As the streaming wars heat up, the company will have to move fast on this. If they can’t show that their shows are beloved beyond a few random, meaningless viewership tallies, people might start questioning whether or not they have to watch them.