Netflix’s top 10 most viewed: Finally we learn the secrets that matter

We already know not to ‘watch what others are watching’. That way lies Mrs Brown’s Boys

Bird Box: a fitful, meme-friendly thriller that generated 45 million views

Bird Box: a fitful, meme-friendly thriller that generated 45 million views

 

Never mind Donald Trump’s tax returns. We are finally going to learn the secrets that really matter. Netflix is set to test a rolling top 10 of its most popular content. “For those who want to watch what others are watching, this may make choosing titles even easier,” a letter to shareholders explained. “After a few months we’ll decide whether to end or expand the test.”

To this point, Netflix has been cagey about revealing viewership figures. They did, last Christmas, merrily announce that Bird Box, a fitful, meme-friendly thriller starring Sandra Bullock, had generated 45 million views to become the company’s most-watched original film. But nobody knows how few watched, say, Baz Lurhmann’s ruinously expensive series The Get Down before its cancellation after one season. The commissars were happy to confirm rising tractor production to the comrades. Crop failures in the eastern steppes were glossed over.

It looks as if that’s changed (a bit). Trade papers such as Variety and The Hollywood Reporter carry endless reports on the week’s box office returns. The performance of films such as Captain Marvel — disliked by the Anti-Femnitwits — generates huge interest in social media. Sad specimens such as this columnist participate in bi-annual box-office leagues that make fantasy football competitions seem like something other than a waste of time. (I won this year. Thanks, Brie.) Now, Netflix is finally getting with the top-10 programme.

In our disproportionate excitement, it is easy to forget that box-office analysis only recently oozed beyond the attention of industry nerds. The newspapers published a note when Titanic or Avatar broke the all-time record. Ticket, The Irish Times culture magazine, has been known to publish the domestic top 10. But it was not until the social-media age that everyday folk exchanged speculation as to opening weekends and projected all-time grosses. Even now, few punters glance at the top 10 when deciding what film to watch. Word of mouth drives interest in unexpected hits such as The Greatest Showman. Dare one suggest that critics help films such as The Favourite or Get Out? But the charts don’t much figure in those conversations.

Nobody’s going to care about the Netflix list. Right? People know that other people are idiots. Other people watch Fifty Shades of Grey and the Transformers films. We already know not to “watch what others are watching”. That way lies Mrs Brown’s Boys.

New York Times bestseller

And yet. There is at least one example of such a list dominating discourse on an art form. The publishing business does a bit of that. The words “New York Times bestseller” have been appearing in publicity material since before the second World War. Booksellers have long arranged paperbacks in order of their worldwide sales.

It is, however, in pop music that other people’s habits have had most effect on consumer behaviour. From the late 1950s until the late 1990s, the singles charts were an interest for everyone with working ears. It became a veritable obsession in early 1969 when the BBC published the first “official” chart. (To that point, various lists had competed for attention.) We watched miserably as Mull of Kintyre droned forever at number one. To this day, DJs make sad faces when reminding us that The Pet Shop Boys kept Fairytale of New York from the top spot at Christmas.

It was regarded as a little victory — akin to a sporting triumph — when an act from your chosen subculture made an unexpected appearance in the top 10. Most Joy Division fans scorned Top of the Pops. Most later felt an obscure sense of pride when New Order landed in the charts with Blue Monday and performed discordantly on the BBC’s flagship show.

The industry worked hard (if not always ethically) to drive sales in those shops that reported to the chart’s compilers. Much of this was to do with radio. If a single got played it had a better chance of getting in the charts. If it was in the charts it had a better chance of getting played. And so on.

Ancient history. The Netflix model bears only cosmetic similarities to the pop business in the last decades of the 20th century. The chart will register because it will be only a click away when you log on to your account. But why would the company bother? Once you’ve paid your subscription it hardly matters what you watch. Ted Sarandos, the company’s forceful CEO, gave us a clue after last week’s announcement. “Our top 10 most-watched shows on Netflix, they’re all Netflix original brands,” he said.

Ah! Tractor production is up 500 per cent. Wheat yields are higher than ever. Time to parade the tanks and the missiles past the waving politburo.

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