For starters, the business models for American broadcasters like NBC and streamers like Netflix (or Hulu, or Amazon) are drastically different. The core product for NBC and other commercial broadcasters is viewers—or at least estimates of viewership they can sell to advertisers via the crude common currency of Nielsen ratings. Broadcasters sell audience eyeballs to sponsors, and so they need to know what programs are popular so they can price their ads accordingly. For decades, the broadcast networks have been competing for ratings points to maximize their ad sales, a battle that became increasingly fierce in the 1980s with the rise of cable television. For NBC and its kin, popular programs mean profits, as they’re effective bait to deliver viewers to sponsors.
Netflix, meanwhile, doesn’t care about viewers, only subscribers—its revenue comes from maintaining and expanding the ranks of people who find spending $10 a month to be a worthwhile investment. It accomplishes this not by creating individual hits, but by offering a slate of programs with broad appeal and reach, including original series and movies, as well as a back catalog of older television and film offerings. Like other online-streaming companies, its ultimate goal is to provide sufficient material to justify the ongoing subscription cost, persuading customers to buy into the brand itself. An individual hit is certainly useful toward that goal, but only insofar as it helps expand the service’s reputation and reach.
Neither commercial broadcasters nor online streamers view “television programs” as their products—for both, programming is a means to their ends of selling audiences to advertisers or subscriptions to audiences, respectively.
For broadcasters, popularity (at least as measured through the inexact ratings system) equals profit, since every increase in viewership means increased ad revenues with no additional costs to produce and procure programs. For streamers, actual popularity is less important than perceived popularity—Netflix gains the most by having its programming seem more popular than it is, as that helps generate interest from potential subscribers, and helps current subscribers justify their monthly fees for access to the hottest programs. Netflix’s refusal to release actual viewer numbers serves this end, as it can market a series as a “hit” without any reality checks to deflate that perception.
Why does this matter for TV viewers without any financial stake in the industry? Popularity typically fuels the cultural conversation, with new releases serving as essential touchstones for what friends and neighbors might be consuming—consider Star Wars: The Force Awakens or Adele’s 25 as examples of how hype and sales mutually reinforce each other in film and music. Television functions quite differently: The most popular programs often garner far less attention than niche offerings. Some of the biggest broadcast hits today include Blue Bloods, Scorpion, and The Goldbergs, but those series are rarely described as “must-watch” programs, even though they’re among the most-viewed shows on television. The Nielsen ratings for an average episode of NCIS are five times the number for the hugely hyped series finale of Mad Men, proving how cultural attention and actual viewership often diverge sharply.