For years now, the streaming industry has thrived on data opacity, carefully crafting the numbers to suit any given agenda. But with at least one strike in Hollywood now over, things might be about to change – to the benefit of writers and actors.
How does one know if a Netflix show or film has been a success or a flop? Sure, the streaming giant gives out some information – but only in the way it likes. For example, the Netflix Top 10 lists aren’t compiled traditionally, in the way that Nielsen, the global TV ratings giant, does it.
Weird metrics – or no measurements at all – is still the rule of the day for most platforms. Apple TV+, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, or Paramount+ rarely reveal exactly how large a show’s audience is.
In other words, up until now, streaming data has in essence been a black hole: no one working in Hollywood actually knew how well projects on, say, Netflix, were doing. Getting paid accordingly is still an empty dream for many – both writers and actors.
A black hole shrouded in mystery
Aaron Paul is a good example. Yes, Breaking Bad isn’t a Netflix original, but the legendary TV show is streamed on the platform and garners millions of views every month.
However, Paul, who joined the striking actors of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) on the picket lines this past summer, recently revealed he didn’t get a single dime in the form of residuals from Netflix where Breaking Bad streams.
“I don’t get a piece from Netflix on Breaking Bad, to be totally honest, and that’s insane to me. Shows live forever on these streamers, and it goes through waves,” Paul told Entertainment Tonight Canada.
“And I just saw the other day that Breaking Bad was trending on Netflix, and it’s just such common sense, and I think a lot of these streamers, they know they have been getting away with not paying people just fair wage, and now it’s time to pony up, and that’s just one of the things we’re fighting for.”
Now, things might change – at least for the folks at the Writers Guild of America (WGA), a union that has reached a strike-ending agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.
The writers have won pay increases, limitations on how artificial intelligence can be used, and, probably most importantly, an agreement that studios and streamers will have to provide the WGA with hard viewership data.
“The Companies agree to provide the Guild, subject to a confidentiality agreement, the total number of hours streamed, both domestically and internationally, of self-produced high-budget streaming programs (e.g., a Netflix original series). The Guild may share information with the membership in aggregated form,” the WGA said.
Sure, some creators actually prefer not to be held to the standard of daily Nielsen ratings. But data surely is king when one is negotiating pay or any new deal in the future.
Besides, writers simply want to be rewarded when their work contributes to the success of a movie or a series – and to achieve that, one needs to know how many people are watching. Surely, SAG-AFTRA – which is still striking – will achieve a similar win over viewership data.
No longer kept in the dark
“There are so many different ways to measure success, so you need to get as much data as possible to be able to organize your thinking about what really defines success,” Jeremy Zimmer, CEO of Beverly Hills-based United Talent Agency, recently told Los Angeles Times.
“If one group is staring at a set of figures and they’re negotiating with another group who doesn’t have any numbers, it makes it a very one-sided conversation.”
For instance, Netflix claimed 45 million views for Bird Box, a movie – but didn’t want to provide any information as to what counted as a view.
The creators of The Walking Dead, Suits, and other shows streamed on the platforms but made in traditional studios worry about residuals (long-term royalty payments to actors, writers, and others who worked on a film or a TV show), of course they do.
Mark Boldman, a global media group head at Solomon Partners, an investment bank, advises companies in the media industry, including streaming and entertainment firms. He told Cybernews that he thought that the streamers have always been keen to avoid paying residuals.
“This caused tension. In the past we had ratings, and we still do for cable TV, but streamers did not provide this kind of data to be rated. They didn’t refuse to provide it per se: they just had a different system. But it is their own system,” Boldman told Cybernews.
“And this data is important for the writers and actors for them to be and feel compensated for their work. The SAG contract is still not done but now, the industry will have to pay writers, and will have to pay actors once it’s all done.”
Stephen Lovely of Cordcutting.com who has recently conducted research into the double strike on Hollywood also told Cybernews that the agreement was commendable: “It’s a good thing for pretty much all parties involved other than the streaming companies themselves who I’m sure would have preferred to continue keeping everyone else in the dark.”
However, Lovely is not entirely sure how much of the new transparency will trickle down to ordinary observers. And that’s important because it will be much harder for streamers to claim that a show has succeeded or tanked when the actual numbers will show otherwise – maybe, just maybe the cancellations will slow down.
“Knowing that a project is widely popular can add to the viewer's enjoyment, fostering a sense of being part of a cultural phenomenon. Moreover, transparent data allows viewers to discover hidden gems and support underappreciated content that might otherwise face cancellation,” Alishba Obaid, a blogger, told Cybernews.
The Spotify way
Of course, there’s a “but,”, and a fat one. Many in the world of film remain unconvinced that the industry can return to the times of old. Technology and streaming have changed it forever.
There’s also a precedent called Spotify. The music streaming platform is extremely convenient – just like video streamers – so it’s easy to forget how difficult it is for artists to make money on the platform.
Spotify has also been criticized for exploiting artists, and, yes, the juggernaut should probably pay them more than mere cents – but there’s no going back. In fact, even more music streaming platforms are available nowadays.
In film, the trajectory has been the same, says Mario Almonte, president of Herman-Almonte Public Relations and pop culture expert. According to him, the industry still finds it difficult to wrap its head around the new norm in entertainment.
“That’s because the industry is still controlled by an older generation of CEOs who have 20th-century mentalities, when there was a clear distinction between movies released in theaters and those shown on TV,” Almonte told Cybernews.
“Conversely, many writers and actors are also having difficulty fully grasping how the new norm of AI and streaming data work. Chaos has ensued because all the parties involved demand compensation based on a business model that’s no longer valid or relevant.”
Almonte actually sees no real solution. He thinks that the financial questions will have to “work themselves out in the same slow and painful way that musicians and record labels have been doing in the age of Spotify and streaming.”
Indeed, streaming is simply different. In traditional TV, advertising revenue is directly tied to viewership numbers, and this obviously makes data transparency essential for networks. But paid streaming platforms rely on subscription fees that translate to a steady income stream regardless of individual show or movie performance.
Tell that to the writers and actors, though. Of course, it’s more revenue that most large streamers are seeking when they move towards cheaper or even free ad-based models – but the trend could be helpful to creators as, surely, advertisers need to see hard data, and the latter might be just the tool writers and actors need for negotiating.
After all, “although artists do have qualms with the music streaming model, it serves them better than the radio model, which has surprisingly never paid royalties to the artists – only the songwriters and publishers,” Sean Boelman, a film industry expert, told Cybernews.
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