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Nielsen finally has a way to track Netflix ratings — or so it says

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Orange is the New Black may be garnering viewing numbers as high as the top shows on any major television network, according to Nielsen.

The ratings specialist has released what it claims are accurate viewing numbers for the Netflix series. According to Nielsen, 6.7 million people streamed the first episode of the show's fourth season over the first three days after its June 17 premiere. Nielsen also claimed that 52 percent of all US households have some form of streaming subscription service — up from previous estimates ranging from 40 to 47 percent.

Nielsen revealed the numbers on Wednesday to attendees at its annual Consumer 360 conference in Las Vegas. If accurate, viewing numbers like these would make the series well-matched against the most-watched shows on traditional network television.

It’s no secret that streaming subscription sites like Netflix and Hulu have made Hollywood sit up and take notice. But while Netflix is generally considered to be stiff competition for the likes of HBO and network television, figuring out exactly how big that competition is has proven incredibly difficult.

That’s because Netflix never shares its overall viewing numbers for individual shows — let alone for its flagship original series like Orange is the New Black. Netflix has been open about its reluctance to share its numbers, noting that its programming tactics are very different from any other network. (More on this in a moment.)

Still, Nielsen is trying its best to demystify the data for a television industry that is understandably on edge. It’s offering a service to participating production companies and TV studios: If the studios provide Nielsen with an audio file of an episode, Nielsen can track how many people from among its Nielsen families are watching and build a representative guess as to how many millions of people that is.

In addition to tracking Orange is the New Black for Lionsgate, the studio that produces the show for Netflix, Nielsen also released numbers for Hulu’s Seinfeld rerun premiere, claiming that 706,000 viewers watched the show in its first five days streaming.

To further entice studios to use the service, the company also teased demographic numbers for AMC’s Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul. According to Nielsen, just 24 percent of viewers who watch the show on a traditional TV network fall into the coveted golden demographic of ages 18 to 34. On Netflix, however, Better Call Saul’s 18 to 34 demographic jumps all the way up to 44 percent.

Though Nielsen’s ratings are a slight step forward in attempting to gauge the audience for streaming TV, it’s difficult to make exact correlations between traditional TV networks and streaming sites like Hulu, Netflix, or Amazon. Watching the shows the moment they air isn’t a priority for streaming subscribers who can access them any time, and Netflix and Amazon don’t include commercials, so their ratings don’t impact advertising revenue.

Then there’s the question of how accurate Nielsen’s ratings even are to begin with. According to Netflix, Orange is the New Black is its most-watched show. But in January, an attempt by NBC and an outside tech company to pry open Netflix’s ratings produced a much, much lower estimate for the show’s average ratings. This was because Netflix first released the third season in June of last year, while the rating samples were conducted between September and December — hardly peak time for viewing the show. Still, the vast difference between the two metrics shows how much viewership can fluctuate — and underscores why Netflix doesn’t care about ratings.

And while Nielsen is considered an industry authority, its statistical samplings, based on studies of its 40,000 US Nielsen households, are essentially fancy guesswork — guesswork that isn’t always accurate. Plus, Nielsen can only measure US viewership, not Netflix’s overall global reach.

Nielsen is clearly determined to expand its reach to uncovering usable data for digital distribution. Being able to do this effectively could determine its survival: In the past, it’s been accused of "ruining TV" with inaccurate ratings claims. Then again, streaming media is also ruining TV by "wreaking havoc" on traditional ratings methods, which largely fail to effectively track either streaming data itself or the behavior of people who are most likely to stream shows rather than watch them traditionally.

While this all may make little sense from an outsider perspective — after all, if we can know how many people pirated Game of Thrones, why can’t we know how many people watched a show on Netflix? — the obstacles to accurately measuring streaming data are numerous.

The only entity with accurate information on Netflix viewership is Netflix. As long as it’s not sharing, then any outside effort to track streaming data would necessitate either some kind of massive internet privacy breach, or some kind of massive volunteer reporting on the part of audiences. In the first case, the tracking attempt would probably be illegal; in the second, the tracking attempt could never be effective or accurate, since there’s no way to get everyone to voluntarily and systematically report their viewing habits.

And if you could get, say, 40,000 people to self-report, then, well … that’s how you get the Nielsens.

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