Netflix has dragged its fixation on flexing viewership stats into the new year, but it brought a surprise twist this time. On Tuesday, it touted how fantasy show The Witcher turned in its most popular first season of a series yet, with an estimated 76 million accounts watching it in the first four weeks. It bragged that even more people watched 6 Underground, an explosion-fest directed by Michael Bay, which hit 83 million household views in the first month. 

All you have to do is squint your eyes and pretend it matters, even if millions of people could have turned off both programs as soon as the Scene I ended.

Netflix’s surprise: The company switched to a new viewership metric that essentially inflates its numbers by more than a third compared with its previous standard. Netflix said it will now count a title as “watched” if you choose to watch it and let it play for two minutes. That’s it. In the past, Netflix wouldn’t start counting something as “watched” until you got through 70% of the first episode of a series or of a film’s total runtime.

The company took this kind of measurement out for a spin last month, when it released popularity rankings for all of 2019. 

Netflix advocates for the new standard by saying the new two-minute threshold is more fair to all titles, regardless of their length. Under the old measurement, long films were at a disadvantage. A 3.5-hour epic like The Irishman had a much taller hurdle to clear to hit that 70% mark than a show like Special with 15-minute (or shorter) episodes. Netflix interactive titles, which produce an eye-popping amount of total watchable video to account for all possible choices, were also difficult to gauge with the 70% model.

Ryan Reynolds in 6 Underground
6 Underground with Ryan Reynolds was one of Netflix’s most popular titles in the previous quarter, which included its crucial holiday period. Christian Black/Netflix

But In the case of The Witcher and 6 Underground, any viewer could make it to the main title sequences but then turn off the programs out of boredom or disgust — and those accounts still cast their vote in Netflix’s tally of what is hyper popular. Those weren’t the only titles Netflix highlighted: The second season of psychological thriller You got a projected 54 million account views; holiday flick Klaus, which is nominated for a best-animated-feature Oscar, got 40 million account views; and the third season of big-budget historical drama The Crown got 21 million account views.

For years, Netflix was notoriously tight-lipped about viewership. The creator of House of Cards, which put Netflix’s original content efforts on the map, once said the company wouldn’t even share viewership metrics with him. But lately Netflix has loosened up to help recruit talent and stoke up buzz.

And even before this change inflating its numbers, Netflix’s stats needed big disclaimers. For one, they aren’t independently verified, nor are they backed up by detailed data from the company. Netflix is in the unique position that it can cherry-pick highlights, and we don’t have much independent data to verify it. Traditional media companies, on the other hand, have their box office performance independently monitored, and they’re at the mercy of Nielsen ratings as the barometer for TV shows.

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