What are Netflix's biggest shows?

I've been watching a lot more TV recently. News, yes, plenty. But also lots of much-needed escapism as I try to forget what’s going on in the real world for a couple of hours.

I'm not alone. Last week, TV viewing grew by 23% year on year, having been tracking down about 4% this year. So, people watched an average of 38 minutes more a day. Daytime TV viewing grew by 43% and daytime daily reach has increased by 26%. Viewing among children has grown by 21%. The broadcaster VOD platforms have also seen record audiences and viewing levels.

As well as all the extra broadcaster TV we’re watching, we’re also likely to be watching more subscription VOD, like Netflix. Thinkbox is constantly asked about SVOD viewing, but it is hard to answer because they famously don’t report viewing figures; they just throw us the occasional, selective stat. This has been a challenge for years, ever since the SVODs burst on to the scene. Coupled with our industry’s atypical viewing habits and near-fetishism of Netflix, the true picture of its actual viewing is shrouded in fog.

But help is now at hand. Technology insight company Digital.i has developed a credible methodology to estimate Netflix content viewing using a passive data collection (i.e. viewing data that was collected without having to ask anyone any claimed behavioural questions). Their solution is based on a nationally representative panel of 1,000 households and includes all viewing on any device (even downloads).

So, we commissioned Digital.i to analyse all the data collected in 2019 to uncover the truth about what people have been watching on Netflix in the last year. Here’s what we discovered…

The dominance of licenced and US content on Netflix

Netflix is a company substantially built on licencing broadcasters’ archives, and Netflix’s top three shows – Friends (457 million streams), The Big Bang Theory (290 million streams) and Brooklyn Nine-Nine (242 million streams) – all started life on broadcaster TV. Indeed, they are still on broadcaster TV. Together, they account for 10% of Netflix’s streams in the UK. This is reflective of the overall trend of Netflix viewing: 59% of its streams are licensed programmes and films, the remaining 41% is Netflix original or exclusive programming.

The above three shows are also representative of another trend which we see in the data: US shows account for the vast majority of Netflix viewing in the UK. 84% of streams in the UK are of non-British content. This makes sense as Ofcom’s 2019 Media Nations study found that British programmes accounted for just 11% of titles in the Netflix library. Although the number of British titles on Netflix is increasing year on year, it’s not the go-to destination for local content. UK broadcasters are.

This gives UK broadcasters a distinct competitive advantage. MTM’s study ‘The Age of Television: the needs that drive us’, identified the importance of UK content to British audiences. Viewing needs such as Comfort, Unwind and Experience, which between them account for over half of all time spent viewing video, are satisfied by content that’s culturally familiar, great at creating shared moments and often suitable for the whole household. And much of these requirements are met by UK content.

How does this compare with broadcaster TV?

What people most want to know of course is how Netflix viewing figures compare with broadcaster TV viewing. To answer this, we took Netflix ‘streams’ (defined as a programme start on any device) and compared them with broadcaster transmission TV set ‘views’, which were defined using BARB data as 1+ minute of TV set viewing (device viewing wasn’t available for all of 2019). We’ve called the comparable metric ‘household views’.

By analysing these total household views, it stands to reason that it’s going to favour shows which have high volumes of new content. Therefore, we see the top two shows – by quite some way - being Emmerdale and Coronation Street. Alongside soaps, we see other high frequency content in the top 20 such as gameshows, comedy and lifestyle entertainment.

So, where do Netflix’s biggest shows, Friends, The Big Bang Theory and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, rank in this list? This is where it gets interesting.

Netflix’s streams of Friends appear at number 12, just behind Escape to the Country and just ahead of Hollyoaks. The Big Bang Theory appears further up the rankings at number 7. However, this isn’t Netflix’s streaming of the show, but the show broadcast on Channel 4. Netflix’s streaming of The Big Bang Theory is ranked 29th. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is 40th.

And where are the Netflix Originals? You need to go well beyond the top 20 to find them: high-profile Stranger Things comes in 105th with 103 million household views.

But it’s not entirely fair to compare shows based purely on total household views. It might indicate overall popularity but shows with lots of episodes will always do better and, let’s face it, we don’t just want to watch soaps and long-running comedy series. Viewing need states such as Escape and Indulge are often met by genres such as drama, documentary or reality TV.

These series usually have lower overall number of episodes but viewing to those episodes can be very high. An alternative way to look at these viewing figures is the average household views per episode. This removes any volume-of-content bias.

By looking at the data this way we start to see high-rating dramas and entertainment shows dominating the list such as The Great British Bake Off, Line of Duty and Manhunt.

But, even looking at the data in this way, Netflix shows don’t appear in the top 20. Netflix’s top show by household views per episode is After Life which commanded 5.5 million - an impressive figure, but not quite enough to compete in scale with the audiences broadcasters routinely get.

This new analysis helps us understand better how Netflix fits into our viewing lives. Netflix and other SVOD services are great additions to our viewing, now more than ever when we are watching so much. They enrich our viewing experience by providing another way to access the shows we love. As the current crisis unfolds, we are going to see people relying even more heavily than usual on every form of TV to provide them with healthy doses of escapism and comfort.

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