How Netflix is boosting its 'watched-by' numbers by 35%

(Image credit: Netflix)

Netflix has released its Q4 2019 earnings. As far as earnings reports go, it's pretty standard. You can ready the highlights here. But the most interesting thing tucked amid all those numbers is that Netflix has changed the way it's reporting — crowing, really — about how many people watched a particular thing.

Previously if you had watched 70 percent of a show or a series or a film, you were considered to have watched it. But the thing is that shows and series and films are of varying lengths. So 70 percent of a 5-minute short (that's about 3 and a half minutes) is a bit different than sitting through 42 minutes of an hour-long special.

Going forward, Netflix will consider you to have watched something if the following criteria are met:

  1. You chose to watch it and
  2. You watched it for at least 2 minutes.

By that new standard, you'll have considered to have "watched" a 60-minute special even if you only watched a little more than 3 percent of it. And, yeah, that's a big difference.

Here's the operative section:

As we've expanded our original content, we've been working on how to best share content highlights that demonstrate popularity. Given that we now have titles with widely varying lengths - from short episodes (e.g. Special at around 15 minutes) to long films (e.g. The Highwaymen at 132 minutes), we believe that reporting households viewing a title based on 70% of a single episode of a series or of an entire film, which we have been doing, makes less sense. We are now reporting on households (accounts) that chose to watch a given title.

So what does that mean for Netflix's most recent crop of content? The Witcher looks to be its "biggest Season 1 TV series ever," Netflix said in its earnings report. (Never mind that "TV series" is a bit of an outdated term at this point.) How big? Some 76 million households chose to watch it. That is, watched it for at least 2 minutes. (Presumably that's per episode? There's still some explaining to be done here.)

More: What's new this month on Netflix

On another track, the Ryan Reynolds flick 6 Underground — which also has gotten prominent play atop the Netflix recommendations — has been seen by 83 million households. The film clocks in at 2 hours and 8 minutes, so those 83 million households watched at least 1.5 percent of the movie before turning it off. Or before actually watching it.

How much higher are these new numbers under the new metric? Netflix says to expect a 35 percent increase.

Just maybe don't expect those numbers to mean folks are watching 35 percent more.

Phil Nickinson