Netflix Knows When You’re Hooked

Oh man, you guys. This is wonderful. Netflix has released the results of a study it did of when people get hooked on TV shows. They defined the “hooked episode” as the episode after which 70% of viewers went on to complete the first season of that show.

The big news from the study (which isn’t really all that surprising, intuitively):

“In our research of more than 20 shows across 16 markets, we found that no one was ever hooked on the pilot. This gives us confidence that giving our members all episodes at once is more aligned with how fans are made.” –Ted Sarandos (emphasis mine)

So, why does this matter?


From Netflix’s POV…

Netflix is using this study as validation that binge-watching is indeed the way people want to be watching TV — if you’re not hooked by a show’s first episode, it’s better to give you the entire season at once so you can get to the “hooked episode” in a matter of hours, instead of in a month.

…And beyond.

This is also important because it undermines the traditional importance of a show’s pilot episode. “The notion that it may take several episodes for a show to gain traction is anathema at networks, where the clock starts to tick as soon as a pilot airs, and pressure is on to cancel any series that isn’t immediately performing.” (Fast Company)

It’s not surprising that pilot episodes aren’t when people get hooked on shows. Writers have a lot of work to do in a pilot to set up the characters, story arcs, and world of the show. It’s a lot of exposition, which is generally accepted as the least exciting aspect of storytelling.

What’s exciting about this is the possibility that (with access to the right data) we could dig deeper, better understand how and when viewers get hooked (both while binge-watching and on a normal TV schedule), and adjust programming strategy accordingly to lower the cancellation rate. That would mean less money burned on shows that die early (RIP Selfie) and the opportunity to develop more shows’ audiences over multiple seasons (you’re welcome, advertisers).

But Before You Etch This Into a stone Tablet…

This study obviously isn’t perfect, so it’s worth mentioning a few reasons why it shouldn’t be considered gospel. First there’s the small sample size. The study only covers 25 shows, some of which weren’t even available in all the territories studied.

We also don’t know how Netflix chose the shows they looked into — there might be shows out there that did hook people right from the start but that weren’t included in this study. (Intuitively I doubt that there are a ton of shows that hook people right from the beginning, but who knows.)

Also, the shows they looked into are hits for their respective networks or huge blockbusters, and many of them (like Breaking Bad and Mad Men) had amazing reputations long before this data was collected (January – July 2015). How did that influence viewing patterns? If you didn’t know when you started watching Breaking Bad that it was an epic hit, would you have needed more than two episodes to get hooked?

Want to learn more?

Click through to this Fast Company article for a list (spoiler warning!) of the episodes that got people hooked on Bates Motel, House of Cards, Pretty Little Liars, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and more. And check out the Netflix press release about the study for more information about their results and methodology.

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(Also, if you want to experience a phenomenal pilot episode, watch the very first episode of Grey’s Anatomy. Hands-down my favorite pilot ever!)

Images courtesy of Netflix.

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