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Only watched two minutes of The Witcher before turning it off? Netflix still counts you as a viewer

The Witcher is officially on track to be Netflix’s most successful show launch ever. There are some enormous question marks over that success though, as Netflix has sneakily moved the goalposts when it comes to viewing figures. 

In its Q4 2019 investors’ letter, the company said: “[The Witcher] is tracking to be our biggest season one TV series ever. Through its first four weeks of release, 76m member households chose to watch this action-packed fantasy, starring Henry Cavill. As a testament to how our hit content can penetrate the global zeitgeist and influence popular culture, the show’s launch drove up sales of The Witcher books and games around the world, and spawned a viral musical hit.”

The numbers are remarkable, yes. However, Netflix’s decision to change the way it measures viewing figures rather takes the shine off.

Related: Netflix say it isn’t concerned about the “streaming wars” − but linear TV should be

Previously, a viewer would have to watch 70% of any given show or film to be counted as a viewer. Sounds fair? We think so.

Now, however, you only have to watch two minutes of any given show or film for Netflix to tally you up on its viewing figures chart. Two minutes.

Think of all the times you’ve given something a try for two minutes − or significantly longer − only to go “no, that’s not really for me”, or even “that is absolutely terrible!”

This seems particularly relevant when it comes to The Witcher. The opening scenes weren’t exactly compelling and, personally, I would not be at all surprised if a lot of people had stopped watching after the opening scene or two.

I’m certainly not alone in that view either. BBC Culture gave the first series two stars, citing the show’s “jarringly paced, convoluted script” and its “colourless lead performance”. Hollywood Reporter said you might enjoy it in places, “depending on your patience”, and Entertainment Weekly called the show “nakedly terrible”.

Nonetheless, official viewing figures speak louder than words and the show has been renewed for a second season. In all fairness, it’s generated a lot of conversation too, not least because of its ear-worm hit Toss a Coin to You Witcher.

So, what’s the company’s reason for changing the metrics?

Netflix explained: “As we’ve expanded our original content, we’ve been working on how to best share content highlights that demonstrate popularity. Given that we now have titles with widely varying lengths … we believe that reporting households viewing a title based on 70% of a single episode of a series or of an entire film, which we have been doing, makes less sense. We are now reporting on households (accounts) that chose to watch a given title.”

The small print adds: “Chose to watch and did watch for at least 2 minutes − long enough to indicate the choice was intentional − is the precise definition”.

The letter continues: “Our new methodology is similar to the BBC iPlayer in their rankings based on ‘requests’ for the title, ‘most popular’ articles on the New York Times which include those who opened the articles, and YouTube view counts. This way, short and long titles are treated equally, levelling the playing field for all types of our content including interactive content, which has no fixed length.

“The new metric is about 35% higher on average than the prior metric. For example, 45m member households chose to watch Our Planet under the new metric vs. 33m under the prior metric.”

Related: Best VPN

On the face of it, the metric change feels a little bit cheeky, especially given that it applies to both films and TV. If you wanted two minutes of a two hour film, you can’t be said to have watched the film, can you?

The switcheroo pulled here by Netflix has given it a big numbers boost too, which is likely to make comparisons with its new competitors look a little rosier.

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