By Scott Collins
7:27 PM EDT, July 22, 2013
With "Orange Is the New Black," Netflix looks like it has another hit. Or does it?
One issue with the streaming service is that no one really knows how many viewers are watching original series such as women-in-prison comedy "Orange" and the political drama "House of Cards." Netflix isn't rated by Nielsen, the company that measures TV ratings, and executives have refused to release any viewership data whatsoever. So while some media outlets are describing "Orange" as a "smash," for all we know it could really be a dud. (The trailer above contains some rough language, so be warned.)
The uncertainty is rankling many investors and media veterans, who argue that it's tough to figure out just how popular these shows really are, even if the Emmy nods for "House of Cards" last week make it clear Hollywood has accepted streaming series as viable programming. Check out this Forbes.com post from last week for a summary of skeptics' views.
But wait. It may be possible to at least formulate an idea of the viewership for "Orange," even if it just amounts to an educated guess. And, yes, a guess is it all is. But we did say educated.
First, let's consider that Netflix -- which reported second-quarter earnings on Monday -- now claims around 30 million subscribers for its paid content. That makes it (as of earlier this year) just a shade larger than HBO, which has 28.8 million subscribers.
HBO's most popular show is the fantasy "Game of Thrones," which delivers somewhere around 5 million total viewers on nights when episodes are first shown. But once you add up all the various platforms over the ensuing days -- time-shifted viewing on DVRs, on-demand, etc. -- "Thrones" gathers an audience of more than 13 million.
We're guessing that "Orange" is nowhere near as popular as "Thrones." First, it's very early in the "Orange" life cycle, and "Thrones" has had years to build that audience. Second, "Orange" is a dark comedy -- and, as the saying goes, satire is what closes on opening night. "House of Cards" may have gotten 13 million total viewers over time, but "Orange" won't.
A better pay-cable antecedent is probably "Weeds," the Showtime comedy overseen by Jenji Kohan, who's also the show runner of "Orange." "Weeds" drew fewer than 1 million viewers on opening night, and once all the various platforms were added up, was getting just north of 3 million total viewers. However, Showtime has about 22 million subscribers, which makes it significantly smaller than Netflix.
So what's it all mean? Bottom line, "Orange" episodes will probably be seen by about 4 million total viewers. Smash hit? Maybe not, but pretty decent for a network that wasn't even producing original series less than a year ago.
What does Netflix say? We asked a spokeswoman for help with our calculations, and she emailed back: "No guidance but thanks for asking." That makes a kind of sense, as Netflix is, like HBO, selling subscriptions, not advertising. And while HBO does offer ratings, for years it did so reluctantly, preferring to talk about its subscribers.
One thing we do know, however. If and when Netflix does post some truly world-beating ratings, exact figures will suddenly materialize. In a tweet, followed by a long news release. Bet on it.
What do you think of "Orange"? Have you seen it?
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