Netflix’s ‘House of Cards’ still punches above its estimated weight

Like the Underwoods, the streaming service knows how to outsmart its rivals

‘House of Cards’ power couple Frank (Kevin Spacey) and Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) settle down to a night of Netflix – possibly. But how many people watch the show? Photograph: David Giesbrecht/Netflix

Democracy is so overrated, according to the Twitter bio of the Netflix show @HouseofCards, which has 1.7 million followers. That's almost one follower for every column inch the political drama collected as its fifth season debuted last week.

It's also fewer followers than the official accounts for Game of Thrones (5.4 million), The Big Bang Theory (4.4 million), Pretty Little Liars (4.1 million), Grey's Anatomy (3.8 million) and quite a few other programmes not made by Netflix.

Social media popularity is a far from a perfect proxy for actual viewership, or even a useful or accurate one. The only reason to mention it at all is because proper data for Netflix shows is as elusive as a straight answer from Theresa May.

There are no official ratings for House of Cards or any Netflix originals. The company sometimes offers quasi-information, such as which shows are watched at breakfast and which are binged at bedtime, while the falling axe on Sense8 and The Get Down is as clear an indicator as any that these shows have underperformed.


But like Amazon Prime – which apparently didn't even tell Jeremy Clarkson how many people watched The Grand Tour – Netflix never releases pure audience numbers. Because it has no advertisers, it is not obliged to share viewing data with a soul. To shareholders, it insists the important metric is subscriber numbers, and these continue to swell.

Tight lips

Netflix's tight lips don't stop others from being curious. Several audience research companies have taken stabs at estimating how many viewers its original shows attract. Some use social mentions as a predictor of success – one company, Ticker Tags, has forecast an acceleration in second-quarter US subscriber growth based on nothing more than the social buzz around controversial teen suicide drama 13 Reasons Why.

Another, Symphony Advanced Media, assembled a 15,000-strong panel of US subscribers and tracked their viewing on mobiles, tablets and computers. The service, which has since ceased, produced numbers that were not comparable to “normal” television ratings, excluded the consumption of people watching on smart TVs and was dismissed by Netflix as “remarkably inaccurate”.

Indeed, the Hollywood Reporter prefaced one story about Netflix "ratings" with the caveat readers should "find a grain or two of salt before reading any further".

For what it's worth, Symphony ranked the top streaming service programmes in the US in 2016 as Orange is the New Black, Stranger Things, Fuller House, Marvel's Luke Cage and Marvel's Daredevil and estimated that the fourth season of House of Cards – in sixth place – was watched by less than half the number of US viewers (8.8 million) who pressed play on Orange is the New Black (23 million).

Despite the absence of comparable ratings, it's still possible to say two things with reasonable certainty: in the US, HBO's Game of Thrones remains the one to beat, while in Ireland, considerably more people watch Fair City and Coronation Street every week than have ever spent time in the company of Frank Underwood, his wife Claire and their incredibly beige furniture.

Viewing data

However, there is no official tally of Netflix subscribers in Ireland, never mind viewing data. Based on a UK survey finding, and assuming a similar rate of penetration in this market, a figure of 350,000 seemed a decent estimate a year ago, but Netflix's tentacles are likely to have spread quite a bit since then, thanks to both its own efforts and customer promotions by Virgin Media Ireland.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that people do still watch and are excited by House of Cards, even though some might say it peaked soon after Zoe met Frank in a deserted subway station.

When I say “people”, though, I mean the people whose tweets I see, which doesn’t even come close to being a representative sample of this, or any other, population.

Influenced by the early-adopter habits of their immediate circle, journalists often overstate the share of viewing held by streaming services and underestimate the shares held by less cool “linear” television channels.

But popularity is hardly the only criteria for paying journalistic attention to something. (We would have to cancel most arts coverage if it was.) Blessed with the imprimatur of Kevin Spacey, House of Cards was the first Netflix original show to win cultural cachet and be credited as an engine of subscriber growth. It will continue to win media attention thanks to its ability to riff off real-life political drama.

This is not limited to Trump. "They respect you more when you show strength. Or show up," @HouseofCards tweeted at May. The retweets rolled in. Little is left to chance either: House of Cards also has the benefit of its share of a Netflix annual marketing budget that tops $1 billion.

Netflix, like Frank, knows how to stay ahead of the game. It is a subscriber-winning machine that leaves rivals with stronger, larger “core” bases feeling outmanoeuvred and wondering how on earth that happened.