Whenever your friends tell you viewership numbers for House of Cards or Orange is the New Black, uh, they’re lying to your face

This is a good lesson in the context I reference in the title of this blog: Netflix is all the rage in certain friend groups/socioeconomic sectors as “Oh, is (such-and-such) streaming?” But here’s the important thing to remember: Netflix is a subscriber-based model, which is very different from standard television (based on advertising). As such, Netflix doesn’t release official viewership figures for its shows — and doesn’t have to. Some of their top guys have even said “the less people that know (the stats), the better,” admitting that “David Fincher (creator of House of Cards) doesn’t even know.” They have had a few slip-ups (if you want to call it that) — saying that House of Cards Orange is the New Black attracted “tens of millions of viewers” (but not making it clear whether that was a combined total, or an individual total for each show). This winter, doing an earnings call, they said House of Cards Season 2 was attracting “a huge audience that would make any cable or broadcast network happy.” There’s literally no context to that statement, because what makes CBS happy (higher numbers) isn’t the same as what makes AMC happy or FOX happy. You could probably throw a 2-million-viewers benchmark at this issue, but you still wouldn’t know the exact numbers. Hell, David Fincher doesn’t know the exact numbers.

Here’s what you can know: domestically, Netflix has about 35.7 million subscribers. Internationally, it has about 11.8 million; the total there is about 47.5 million. They tend to add about 2-3 million per quarter domestic + international, so by the mid-summer, that number might be about 50 million. That’s a very strong user base — stunning fact: that user base is basically 1/20th of Facebook’s — and the original content has clearly helped drive and grow it, but knowing exact numbers here is a fool’s errand.

If you’re trying to read tea leaves, there is this nugget:

According to a report by broadband data company Procera, 16% of all Netflix subscribers on one US cable provider watched at least one House Of Cardsepisode in the first 24 hours it went live. That’s a massive 8 times spike from last year’s season opener. Only 2% of Netflix subscribers watched a single episode on the first day last year – compare that to 3.6% who watched all of the first 5 episodes on day one this year.

And there’s also this:

A Canadian company called Sandvine tracks traffic on the Internet. Sandvine says that during peak hours — roughly 7 to 10 p.m. — Netflix accounts for nearly a third of downstream traffic in North America. That’s up from about one-fifth of the traffic four years ago.

Thing is, that downstream traffic can be people watching House of Cards — or people watching some old Lacey Chabert movie. You just don’t know. And you’re probably never going to figure it out. (Another reason not to compare Netflix shows directly to cable/network shows.)

Ted Bauer