When no one knows how popular televisions shows are

The television streaming services do not release numbers on how many people watched their shows:

Photo by Nothing Ahead on Pexels.com

But nobody else — not Disney, not Apple, not HBO Max, not Amazon, not Peacock — is providing numbers. Or when they do make an announcement, it’s relative: They might say it’s the biggest show in the history of Apple TV+, but that’s vague and data-free.

We’re heading into a football season next fall where Amazon is going to be the only place to watch the Thursday night game, and nobody I’ve talked to expects any viewer numbers to be released from Amazon. What a remarkable thing in the context of media history, that they don’t need to or feel incentivized to report these numbers.

The definition of success on their end is generating new subscriptions and retaining existing ones. Those are the key metrics. So a show that gets lukewarm reviews can be a huge driver of subscriptions. That’s the black box that we don’t really have access to, so we don’t know what is considered a valuable show. All of us — consumers and creators — are operating in the dark.

It’s a fascinating and discombobulating time. If you want to be open-minded and upbeat, you could say: For too long, there’s been this tyranny of the popular. We’ve all been bombarded by advertising that says “This is the No. 1 movie in America!” It was an incessant drumbeat and this syllogism that if it’s popular, then it’s worth your time. So maybe it’s healthy to break away from that.

The lack of data on viewership makes it difficult for serious observers – journalists, pundits, researchers – to know what Americans are watching and consider the consequences. This may seem inconsequential but those interested in what the masses are watching are then left to other methods to figure out what people are watching. Does a lot of Twitter activity suggest a show is popular? Do many conversations with friends and colleagues about the same show make for a popular show? Are subscriber numbers indicative of something?

Much has already been said about the fragmentation of television and other media sources in recent decades. The most enduring or cohesive media forms today might be viral videos or memes. Concurrently, the lack of numbers regarding viewers only adds to this trend and perception.

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