Euphoria, the dick-displaying, parent-triggering new drama from HBO, is a major gamble for the cable network. Not only is the series, a Skins-style teen drama fronted by Disney grad Zendaya, a foray into unprecedented territory for the network; it’s also an overture to an audience already occupied by small screens and the social media stars who thrive on them. The marketing, at least, succeeded in building buzz, yielding the mock-scandalized headlines and divided reviews that indicate the pot has been successfully stirred. But now that Euphoria, to quote its own protagonist, has been pushed out of its parent company’s “cruel cervix” and out into the world, it must stand alone. Having crossed over from the intangible world of hype to the cold, hard one of raw ratings, is Euphoria a hit? Did HBO’s gamble pay off?
The answer is a hard maybe. It turns out that ratings aren’t as tangible as they used to be, with the X factor of streaming making numbers both less scrutable and easier to spin. We don’t know for certain whether Euphoria is a smash. We do know that HBO would very much like us to think it is and will selectively employ statistics accordingly.
According to Deadline, Euphoria’s Sunday premiere earned just over half a million viewers for its initial airing on HBO proper, a figure that doubled to about a million overnight, including an encore and DVR viewing. Both metrics are respectable enough in 2019 and sure to improve over the weeklong window that’s increasingly looked to as a more realistic view of a show’s total reach. But HBO provided an additional factoid to bolster the case for Euphoria: that the pilot “drew the largest premiere audience for a scripted regular series on HBO Now since Westworld.” Deadline adds that the hashtag #EuphoriaHBO was trending on Twitter, both within the United States and worldwide.
Social media chatter is useful context for a show’s engagement and relevance, but also just that: context. HBO’s streaming brag is also vague—the network doesn’t release streaming-specific numbers, so it’s unclear what benchmark it’s surpassing when it approaches Westworld’s record, nor what new one it’s setting. (There’s also the reality that “since Westworld” does not cover a particularly long stretch of time, though HBO’s stand-alone streaming option itself is only four years old.) It’s a statement that sounds clear on its face but disintegrates, Monet-like, the closer you look—evasiveness masquerading as disclosure.
This strategy is hardly unique to HBO. In fact, it’s a sign that the opacity of the streaming era is now trickling down to more conventional providers, and will only grow more entrenched as conglomerates like Disney, NBCUniversal, and HBO’s corporate overseer WarnerMedia unveil their own services. All streaming services, including Hulu and Amazon Prime, keep the details of their audience share a closely guarded secret, preferring to let the Emmys do the talking. But it’s Netflix, ever the industry leader, that’s most publicly tried to have its cake and eat it too, bragging about its successes without releasing any data to verify them.
ADAM SANDLER AND JENNIFER ANISTON BREAKING NEWS ALERT— Netflix Is A Joke (@NetflixIsAJoke) June 18, 2019
30,869,863 accounts watched Murder Mystery in its first 3 days - the biggest opening weekend ever for a Netflix Film. 13,374,914 accounts in the US and Canada, and 17,494,949 more worldwide.
Earlier this week, Netflix’s comedy-centric Twitter account triumphantly announced that Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston’s Murder Mystery had been viewed by 30,869,863 accounts over the weekend, apparently “the biggest opening weekend ever for a Netflix Film.” The sheer specificity of the claim—not 30 million accounts, not even 30.1, but 30,869,863—makes it easy to accept on its face. Never mind that there was no clarification of what the preexisting benchmark had been, nor how much Murder Mystery had beaten it by, nor how many of those views were subscribers watching the movie in full versus trying it out for a few minutes. Netflix isn’t Nielsen, a company with a flawed but consistent metric of what constitutes a product’s audience. And because viewership for individual offerings isn’t directly tied to the company’s revenue, ratings brags aren’t under the legal obligations that come with Netflix’s quarterly financial disclosures. These digital press releases are low risk, high reward, earning headlines in exchange for highly selective transparency.
The tactic is, by now, a familiar one. Just a week ago, Netflix’s main Twitter account boasted that Ava DuVernay’s Central Park Five miniseries When They See Us “has been the most-watched series on Netflix in the US every day since it premiered on May 31.” Earlier this year, a quarterly earnings report included the tidbit that You and Sex Education had supposedly reached 40 million subscribers each in their first month on the service. Patient Zero of this faux-precise approach is last December’s Bird Box, the meme-driven hit that could have had an opening-week audience as high as 45,037,125. (Nielsen, which excludes mobile viewing in its tallies, put the total closer to 26 million.)
Took off my blindfold this morning to discover that 45,037,125 Netflix accounts have already watched Bird Box — best first 7 days ever for a Netflix film! pic.twitter.com/uorU3cSzHR— Netflix Film (@NetflixFilm) December 28, 2018
What’s become an expected element of the Netflix publicity machine has now spread to HBO, a channel angling for a share of Netflix’s devoted teen audience. Companies have little incentive to relinquish control over their data or the many flattering ways in which to frame it. In the streaming era, success is what you make of it—and providers have more tools and fewer outside checks on that process than ever.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.