Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Euphoria Ratings: Discussion

    I've written extensively on the subject of ratings for streaming services, and in particular, the need for both transparency and 3rd party verification. Netflix has taken solid steps forward in regards to the former with the launch of their weekly top 10 website, and Nielsen has attempted to account for the latter with their weekly SVOD lists. But unfortunately, HBO Max does not regularly release their own data, nor are they accounted for in the weekly Nielsen SVOD lists. So when I see articles like this one from Variety I really start to question it.

    HBO reported that 2.4 million people watched the premiere of 'Euphoria' on Sunday January 9th, a number that apparently includes both live viewership on HBO as well as viewership on HBO Max. Now, this is an interestingly high number considering that only 254,000 people watched the program on HBO on the night of its premiere according to Nielsen data. An additional 86,000 watched its 11:30pm rerun, so that is a linear-TV-total of 340,000. With this, we are expected to believe that nearly 86% of the viewership (~2.06 million) came from HBO Max? It's totally possible that this is true, but we have to look at this number with some skepticism.

    As of Nielsen's last report on the subject back in December, linear TV (broadcast and cable) accounts for 64% of all TV consumption, and streaming accounts for about 28%. HBO Max, in particular is at less than 2% and this is definitely something to keep in mind when evaluating the claim that the vast majority of viewers are watching through HBO Max. The major caveat with this though is that the audience for 'Euphoria' is reported to be much younger and those younger viewers are generally not watching the program live on HBO. The audience breakdown for the linear premiere was: 128,000 people 25-54, 107,000 people 55+, and only 19,000 people 24 and under. So, clearly the younger viewers prefer to watch on HBO Max - that is not in dispute - but the question is: how many?

    The first season premiere back in June 2019 logged 577,000 linear TV viewers and delivered just about 1 million same-night viewers including streaming on both HBO NOW and HBO GO. It took 4 days for the premiere to quadruple its linear audience and reach 2.3 million watchers. Yet, last week's premiere is said to have grown nearly ten-fold in the same night. Looking at the first season finale, 530,000 viewers tuned in live on HBO and that number grew to 1.2 million same-night with both re-airings and streaming. That 1.2 million figure was a then-record for the series, so it's also curious that the second-season premiere was somehow able to double its total audience while simultaneously halving its linear audience? What changed between the first season and second season to make this possible?

    First, and foremost, HBO did not clarify whether this 2.4 million figure represents only U.S. viewing or if it is global viewing. Nielsen ratings - both linear and SVOD - measure only viewing within the United States, and while the Nielsen ratings have their many flaws, this level of standardization at least makes it possible to make comparisons either within the same medium or between mediums. We can estimate the number of U.S. streaming viewers based on the SVOD figures and then compare that to the U.S. linear viewers just as we can compare 2 linear viewership figures. Regardless of whether or not 254,000 is an accurate number of linear viewers, we can still say with relative confidence that the show is watched less than other programs that bring in 1 million+ viewers. However, if we're provided a global viewership figure, there is just simply no way of even beginning to make a comparison. In order to give any weight to these kinds of claims, there just simply has to be a level of transparency that isn't happening right now.

    HBO's U.S. subscriber growth as reported in the quarterly AT&T earnings reports is a textbook example of how to lie with statistics. In Q4 2019 (pre-HBO Max), HBO was reported to have 34.6 million U.S. subscribers, and saw an increase to 45.2 million by Q3 2021. On the surface, this looks like a solid 31% growth; however, that 34.6 million figure excludes the 8 million standalone HBO NOW subscribers while the 45.2 million figure includes both HBO and HBO Max. In reality, the number of U.S.-HBO/HBO streaming subscribers has grown only about 5% since the first season of 'Euphoria', from 43 million to 45.2 million (+2.2 million). However, globally (where HBO NOW was never available) the growth has been more significant. In Q4 2019, HBO had 20.1 million international subscribers, and has grown to 24.2 million by Q3 2021, an increase of 20% (+4.1 million). Additionally, domestic and international combined for an additional 4.4 million subscribers in Q4 2021. So, taken together, while AT&T reports a rise of 19.1 million subscribers in the 2 years since Q4 2019, the rise is probably much more along the lines of 10.7 million (2.2 million + 4.1 million + 4.4 million). 

    Second, looking at the social media numbers, there is a decent rise from the previous season. The show reportedly had 838,000 Twitter engagements in the week leading up to its first season finale in August 2019, versus 968,000 Twitter engagements in the week leading up to its second season premiere last week, a rise of about 16%. The finale was a bit of fluke though for the first season as the episode prior managed only 265,000 engagements and episodes earlier in the season were in the low-to-mid 100,000s. With this, it is clear that the show has gotten more popular in the 2+ years since its first season, and taken in tandem with HBO's subscriber growth, could potentially help account for 1.2 million new same-night viewers.

    As a final discussion point, I think it is worth comparing this program to another recent & popular HBO series, 'Succession.' 'Succession' has followed a similar trajectory as 'Euphoria.' That show also premiered its most-recent season back in 2019 and saw a rise in popularity prior to its third-season premiere in October 2021. The third-season premiere brought in 564,000 linear TV viewers at 9pm and added 192,000 viewers in the two reruns at 10pm & 11pm for a linear total of 756,000. Including streaming on HBO Max, it was reported to have reached 1.4 million same-night viewers, so linear TV watching accounted for about 54% of the show's total audience with streaming accounting for about 46%. Back in 2019, the second-season premiere's linear audience grew from 612,000 to 1.2 million including the same-night re-airings and streaming. So, both historically and recently, streaming has accounted for just about half of an HBO show's total reported same-night audience. Yet, last week's episode of 'Euphoria' hit 86%.

    So what does all of this mean? HBO is not an advertising-supported network so they make most of their money from people subscribing to either the channel and/or to HBO Max. So, unlike most other TV networks, they do not care how many people are watching 'Euphoria' linearly versus on streaming. I have no idea what the magic number of viewers this show has to bring in to warrant renewal, and I have no idea whether or not they are touting multi-platform viewership figures because they are happy with them or if it's just a way save-face from the low linear Nielsen numbers. In that sense, it doesn't really matter whether or not that 2.4 million figure is based in reality or not because, in the end, HBO must to answer to themselves whether or not 'Euphoria' is a success. 

    What does matter though is how we use that number. This is a figure devoid of context and it is impossible to use it as a comparison tool with any other show. This actually reminds me of Showtime's spin on the series-premiere ratings of 'Billions' back in 2016. The network reported, and a number of media outlets amplified, that the show premiered to 2.99 million multi-platform viewers which would've been the most-viewed debut for a Showtime series ever. Rarely though was the linear premiere number of 904,000 actually reported. And when it comes to comparison, this is the the number that matters. That 2.99 million figure is made up of viewership prior to the actual premiere (1.6 million), and cumulative same-night viewership from streaming, linear live, and linear re-airing (1.4 million). When Showtime (and the media) report that this was Showtime's best premiere ever, they are comparing things that cannot be compared 1:1. 'Billions' existed with circumstances far different than Showtime's true highest-debut linear ratings: the 2013 premiere of 'Ray Donovan' (1.35 million). 

    And similar is the case for 'Euphoria.' We don't know whether or not 2.4 million represents only-U.S. viewing or if it is indicative of global viewing. We also don't know what HBO counts as a viewer. Nielsen viewership represents the average number of viewers who watch a program, not the total number of unique viewers. For HBO Max, it is unclear what counts as a single view. In the past, Netflix counted a view as anyone who finished 70% of a program, but in 2019, they switched to counting a view as anyone who watched at least 2 minutes of a program, and in 2021, they switched again, to measuring success based on the total number of hours watched within 28 days of release. So even with shows that are within a single streaming platform like Netflix it's impossible to compare viewership of newer ones with older ones. And, as I mentioned prior, Netflix even gives us the benefit of providing transparent weekly data, and they are included in Nielsen's weekly SVOD lists. Neither is the case for HBO Max which releases data only whenever they feel like it and have excluded themselves from the weekly Nielsen SVOD lists, save for when it really benefits them

    Overall, do what you will with these HBO multi-platform viewership releases, but until the service either becomes more transparent with what these numbers actually mean and/or decides to participate in the weekly Nielsen SVOD list, I will treat them as nothing more than corporate spin.

2019Linear premiere
Linear Re-airings + StreamingTotal same-night
from linear premiere
Euphoria Premiere577,000~488,0001,000,00049%
Euphoria Finale530,000~670,0001,200,00056%
Succession Premiere612,000~588,0001,200,00049%
Succession Finale660,000~450,0001,110,00041%
2021-22Linear premiere
StreamingTotal same-night
from linear premiere
Euphoria Premiere254,00086,000~2,060,0002,400,00090%
Euphoria Finale-----
Succession Premiere564,000192,000~644,0001,400,00060%
Succession Finale634,000112,000~954,0001,700,00056%

(Unfortunately, I do not have the breakout of linear re-airing ratings versus streaming ratings from 2019, so the figures in the table represent the sum of both. With this, the number of actual viewers on streaming is decidedly less than the number in the table. Because of this, the "growth from linear premiere" column includes both the same night re-airings and streaming and is therefore not the percentage of streaming-only viewers.)

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