One of the biggest stories in the TV world is the entry of streaming services into the production of original and acquired content. Netflix's Orange Is the New Black, Hulu's Rev., and Amazon's Transparent are among the very best shows on TV (if they're on TV at all), and Transparent in particular was justly called one of the best new fall shows by many critics when it debuted last month. (Read: These 10 screengrabs show the brilliance of Amazon's series Transparent.)
Amazon has responded to those plaudits by renewing the series — about a trans woman (played by Jeffrey Tambor) who begins a gender transition late in life — for a second season to debut next year. Transparent has certainly made the case for itself on a creative level, but it's harder to know if it did on a commercial one, because Amazon, like Netflix and Hulu, refuses to release viewership data.
The press release announcing the renewal features its fair share of Orwellian doublespeak, proclaiming the show a record-breaker for Amazon Prime, then pointing out how it sits atop the Prime Instant Video rankings as the most-watched show. The problem here is that even if both claims are true — and they probably are — there's no real way to know what they mean in the absence of numbers, and Amazon can easily manipulate the data by positioning Transparent in such a way as to make it the first thing viewers see when they log into the service. (This, of course, makes sense. If Amazon can get viewers to sample Transparent, they will probably watch more of it.) And it's not as if Amazon has seen a show get this much buzz before. The number of viewers could be seriously tiny — even as small as 100,000 — and still break the service's record for original programming.
Fortunately, the internet is nothing if not a place where users can rate each and every thing they've seen. While these raw numbers won't do a great job of telling us everybody who's watched (since internet rankings tend to skew whiter, younger, and more male than the general populace), they can give us a sense of just how successful Amazon has been at penetrating the public consciousness. And on that level, Transparent is a bit of a mixed bag.
On IMDB, Transparent has collected 1,280 user ratings over the course of its time on the site. For Amazon, that's not bad. Both Alpha House and Betas — the two shows the network debuted last year — hover just under 1,500 ratings, so Transparent is clearly gaining on them far more rapidly than either started out. But compare to Amazon's chief competitor, Netflix, and the numbers tell a different story. Orange Is the New Black boasts 96,770 user ratings, while House of Cards is just under 150,000. Even Netflix's poorly reviewed werewolf drama Hemlock Grove has over 21,000.
Of course, all three of those shows debuted in 2013, so it's not really fair to compare a show that's only been on a few weeks to them. And compared to other new fall 2014 shows, Transparent is doing ... OK! The show has right around the same number of ratings as NBC's The Mysteries of Laura, which is a mild ratings flop but not such an awful one that it was greeted with swift cancellation. And it's significantly outperforming Fox's dead-on-arrival Mulaney, which has only 411 ratings. But it's also outperforming ABC's successful-so-far Black-ish, which has barely over 1,000 ratings, though this may have more to do with the fact that Black-ish's two main target audiences — family sitcom fans and black viewers — are less likely to go to the trouble of ranking everything they watch on IMDB anyway.
But ultimately, much of this doesn't really matter. Even if only five people are watching Transparent and they're all TV critics, the show is still a "success" for the site, because people are buzzing about it passionately, and that gets the idea of Amazon as a content provider out there in the public consciousness. That will make it easier for future shows to break out, create new subscribers, and justify the expense Amazon is pouring into original content development.
Attempting to extrapolate viewership data from online user ratings is a dangerous game for a variety of reasons — not least of which is that not everybody races to the internet to rank something they've seen after watching it — but it can at least give us some idea of how much the diehard TV fans, who often become early adapters and push new programs onto the public at large, are interested in something. And in that regard, at least, Transparent has yet to really take off.