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What Netflix's Just-Released Viewership Data Tells Us About Their Programming Strategy

A year's worth of data for their top shows offers a glimpse of what's working and what we can expect more of.
  • Noah Schnapp, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Caleb McLaughlin and Sadie Sink in Stranger Things. (Netflix)
    Noah Schnapp, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Caleb McLaughlin and Sadie Sink in Stranger Things. (Netflix)

    Yesterday Netflix gave us the greatest insight yet into how subscribers use the service, by releasing a year's worth of viewership data for their top original movies and TV shows. The streaming platform is famously opaque when it comes to revealing its numbers, something that's caused no end of consternation for industry observers and Netflix's broadcast and cable competitors, whose ratings numbers are on display for all to see starting the next morning. With a year's worth of (self-reported, and thus unverifiable, but still) viewership numbers to observe, we now know for the first time which of Netflix's originals are their most popular.

    The results are eye-opening, at least when it comes to the shows we thought were hits and the shows that actually are.

    The Ten Most Watched Shows on Netflix (October 2018 - September 2019)

    • Stranger Things (64 million plays)
    • Umbrella Academy (45 million)
    • La Casa de Papel (44 million)
    • You (40 million)
    • Sex Education (40 million)
    • Our Planet (33 million)
    • Unbelievable (32 million)
    • Dead to Me (30 million)
    • When They See Us (25 million)
    • Elite (20 million)

    So what conclusions can we draw from the shows that made the list? Beyond simple astonishment that so people are watching Umbrella Academy and aren't telling anyone about it?

    Stranger Things Is King: Next time you see a whole lot of fuss being made over this show and you want to turn up your nose like it's yesterday's news, just take another look at how thoroughly it demolishes the viewership of every other Netflix show. Nothing else is close! The good news is that season 3 of Stranger Things was really strong, so all that viewership didn't go to waste. One interesting thing to consider is whether Netflix will happily ignore its recent tendency to cut off shows after 3-4 seasons because Stranger Things' ratings are so strong, or if the company sticks with the rationale that, past a certain number of episodes, adding more and more seasons to an established show doesn't draw in subscribers as well as adding a new should would.

    Spanish-Language Programming Is Legit: We already knew this about La Casa De Papel, also known as "House of Paper" (the literal translation) and Money Heist (the American title). Now we also know it about Elite, which debuted its second season in September.

    Netflix Viewers REALLY Like Shows About Prep Schools: With Umbrella Academy (about an elite academy that happens to train superheroes), Elite (which follows the horny adventures of teens attending Spain's most elite prep school), and Sex Education (where the nature of the school isn't always so clear, but it has all the familiar trappings of private school) all in the top 10, obviously there is some appeal to a show with teens in a highly competiive, less adult-populated universe. Bad news for The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which couldn't get on the board despite having Sabrina attend a prep school at the behest of Satan.

    Dynamite Duos: One of the most encouraging signs from this top 10 is that Netflix might get the idea that pairing two top-notch actresses in a show that gives them rich characters to play and interesting stories to tell will draw viewers. Unbelievable paired Merritt Wever and Toni Collette for an incredibly powerful and compelling limited series about police detectives working a series of rape cases, while Dead to Me put Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini into a dark comedy about grief and guilt. Both shows were incredibly different, yet both drew big audiences. PLEASE LET THIS BE A TREND.

    Chill-Out Programming Is Important: Look, sometimes you're in the mood for a meticulously told and harrowingly performed mini-series about a real-life case of monstrous racial injustice. Ava DuVernay's When They See Us proved that could be a hit. But sometimes you just want to sit back and let the beauty of the natural world wash over you. Sure, Our Planet augmented the usual Planet Earth-style stunning nature photograpy/soothing David Attenborough narration with a message about taking action to save the planet, but that doesn't change the fact that it's still an ideal Netflix program to turn on the TV while you're winding down for the night.

    Of course, there were only so many lessons these ten successful shows could tell us. At some point, the sheer variety and breadth of what proved to be successful — superheroes and sci-fi; grounded dramas and precise comedies; Spanish teen soap operatics and a nature documentary — resists any one sweeping statement about What Works for Netflix. Consider:

    • Actress-forward comedy worked for Dead to Me but not for Russian Doll or GLOW.
    • Supernatural teen action worked for Umbrella Academy but not for something like The Order
    • Hugely hyped returning shows that we all assumed were big hits was a true statement for Stranger Things, but apparently not for 13 Reasons Why.

    What does this list mean for shows whose next seasons remain undecided? Does not appearing on the top 10 give fans of Mindhunter, for example, reason to worry? A big handful of shows that didn't make this list have been renewed for final seasons: GLOW, Dear White People, Fuller House, The Ranch, 3%, Dark, and The Rain.

    Ultimately, without a full accounting of every Netflix show's viewership numbers (and a knowledge of the metrics that drive new and continuing subscriptions), it's hard to draw too many concrete conclusions. After all, it was only two years ago that recent Emmy-winner Ozark was the best-performing streaming show of the summer. So did viewership plummet, or is it lurking in 11th place right behind Elite? All we do know is that it couldn't hold a candle to Umbrella Academy, so watch out Emmys 2020!

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Netflix, Dead to Me, Elite, La Casa de Papel, Our Planet, Sex Education, Stranger Things, The Umbrella Academy, Unbelievable, When They See Us, You (Netflix series)