How to Tell What’s Popular When Nothing Ever Goes Away
Sometime a few months ago, emails from a service called TV Time began appearing in my email inbox. I didn’t download their app, and didn’t subscribe on any website. Maybe somebody knows I watch a lot of TV and signed me up as a favor or prank.
I could have unsubscribed on the spot, but the email was a ranking of most-anticipated TV shows on streaming services. I write a lot about TV and I’m a person who pays for multiple streaming services. This was a thing relevant to my interests.
What really kept me signed on, and kept me opening these emails week after week to this day, is the sheer weirdness of these rankings of what they call “Shows On The Rise” and “Binge Report,” which the company TV Time swears they didn’t make up. There’s methodology to the madness.
What kind of crazy am I talking about?
I’d see shows that I’d vaguely heard of, such as Lucifer, at the top of the charts, alongside things I hadn’t known existed (what is “Baki?” What is “Gamorrah?”), right next to big familiar hits such as Stranger Things and Marvel’s Jessica Jones. But there’s something else happening too, with shows such as Fox’s long-departed Glee, sitcoms including Friends, and The Office, and, to my shock and awe, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which aired its last episode on May 20, 1996.
I’m well-aware that The Office and Friends and Seinfeld are now in their vintage prime as shows that people, even young people, continue to watch. It’s why Netflix paid $100 million to keep Friends streaming as it spoonfed warm ‘90s-era laughs to viewers like so much chicken-noodle soup.
But the return of shows that weren’t even popular in their heyday is the weirder phenomenon, with series such as Veronica Mars becoming must-binge streaming hits.
Some of it, of course, is because of revivals and reboots; people curious about cult hits want to catch up and be part of a return wave for a series such as Gilmore Girls. But to a viewer like me who watches a lot of TV, it doesn’t so much feel like a throwback to the days of broadcast TV first-run and syndicated/rerun shows coexisting on the dial as a newer stew of old and new, a weird gumbo where it’s becoming harder and harder to tell what’s new, what’s old, what’s remade, and what’s in between.
When I look up Mystery Science Theater 3000 on Netflix, am I looking at the original shows with the original host Joel Hogdson, the run with replacement Mike Nelson, the Kickstarted-funded reboot season from Netflix, or something the streamer called The Gauntlet as its own self-contained short season of episodes? Time doesn’t matter any more in TV. Nothing ever goes away.
Making Your Way In This TV World Today
To make some sense of what’s started to give me headaches, I spoke to Jeremy Reed, senior vice president of programming for TV Time. The company, he said, tracks what people watch across any platform (Netflix, Hulu, traditional broadcasters, YouTube, etc.) through their ad-free app. The information they gather from about 800,000 self-reporting users becomes the basis for their TVLytics business, which can provide valuable viewership data for, say, TV agents, streaming companies, or anyone else with a stake in how TV programming is doing.
Because their users add shows they want to track and update episodes they’ve watched on their own, you could say these are highly-engaged TV watchers, the kinds of binge viewers and meta-TV obsessives the streaming companies crave as customers.
Reed said that what the company thought at first might be a glitch in their data methodology is proving to show the real trends that are happening.
“With shows like Glee, Veronica Mars, and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, we’re seeing the power of a second or third life on streaming services. Friends was actually the number-one binged show in our app in 2018. Netflix may be paying $100 million for this content, but we were able to show, yes, Netflix is really benefiting from this content.”
The New Nielsen
In addition to “Binge Report,” which tracks what people want to watch, and “Shows on the Rise,” which follows week-over-week growth of interest in shows, TV Time also does “Anticipation Report,” tracking series that haven’t even aired yet but that users are already tracking. Amazon’s The Boys and Hulu’s reboot of Veronica Mars have been recent shows that have done well under this rubric.
Reed says that sometimes the TV Time data points to shows that are going to get a huge boost from moving to a new platform, such as You, which became a hit on Netflix after languishing on Lifetime Network, or Lucifer, which topped the company’s Binge Report for nine weeks after moving to Netflix.
“As soon as those shows moved over to Netflix and really found the right audience, a global audience, they exploded,” Reed said.
TV Time has been around since 2011 and is now facing the challenge of adding to the 70,000 (!) shows it tracks as services from Disney, AT&T, and other start to come online.
Very often, Reed said, some of the data trends surprise him…until he finds the same thing happening in the real world.
On a family trip to Arlington, where Reed is from, he took an informal survey, asking people of different ages and viewing habits what they watch. Reed, who just turned 50, said the young people he talked to, even ones who weren’t alive in the 1990s, had a favorite show.
“They all watch Friends,” he said.