Deep Dive Reports
September 21, 2021

1 Year of Nielsen SVOD Top 10 Lists

Over the last year, Nielsen has been publicly releasing a weekly list of the Top 10 most viewed SVOD programs.  This comprehensive analysis of the data identifies directional trends and provide insights into the performance and strategy of these streaming services

Nielsen has been the leader in linear TV ratings over the past decades, and provides the currency for TV networks and advertisers (Note: the accuracy of these ratings have become more contested over the past year, but that is a separate discussion).  As media companies shift focus from linear to OTT, Nielsen has followed those moves and implemented new tools to estimate viewership from the leading streaming services.  While most of their data is only available to its paid clients, Nielsen has been publicly releasing a Top 10 List of SVOD programs on a weekly over the last year.  Initially, this was for the 10 most viewed programs (TV and Film) overall, but at the start of 2021, they expanded the list for the 10 most viewed original TV shows, acquired TV shows, and films (in total, 30).  After a full year of Top 10 Lists, it is the right time to analyze this data and develop a better understanding of viewing patterns.

To be clear, this data is not without flaws – it only tracks Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime, and Hulu in the U.S. on TV sets – nor is it meant to be 100% accurate in its representation of viewership.  The goal is to utilize this data to identify directional trends and provide insights into the performance and strategy of these streaming services.

 

The Most Viewed Content

As expected, Netflix programs dominated the Nielsen Top 10 Lists, given their significant scale in the U.S. (~67M subscribers), volume of programming and algorithmic recommendations.  HBO Max is not formally included in Nielsen’s panel, but after the debut of Wonder Woman 1984 on the service, the WarnerMedia PR team made sure to let everyone know how well it did.  Especially after its day/date release was such a pivotal moment in HBO Max’s strategy, as well as the broader entertainment industry.  However, as we will see throughout the data, Netflix has a stronghold on these rankings.  In fact, it had the top 20 most viewed program-weeks, with Luca on Disney+ the most viewed non-Netflix program-week in the 21st position, at nearly 50% viewership of top-placed The Crown (Note: program-weeks refer to a show’s/film’s appearance in the rankings during a particular week; it’s not cumulative; show-week and film-week will be used when only ranking TV shows and films, respectively).

Nielsen 1 year 3
The Top 10 Most Viewed Program-Weeks

The Crown had the biggest week of viewership with the Season 4 release of the franchise.  Normally, Netflix (and others) release new programming on Friday night, allowing consumers the opportunity to binge through multiple episodes over the weekend.  However, Season 4 of The Crown was released on a Sunday, so its “first week” in these rankings was only based off 1 day, which allows for much more fulsome viewing in the “second week,” which is when it hit the top spot.  It’s quite impressive that the first day viewership for the series was strong enough to make it into the Top 10 List that week.

Cobra Kai appears on this list twice, once as an “Original” and once as an “Acquired” show.  The term Netflix Original has many different meanings based on how the content was procured, whether it’s a fully owned original (i.e. The Crown), geographical exclusive (i.e. Peaky Blinders), or continued production, like Cobra Kai.  The Ralph Macchio starring show was one of the key pieces of premium programming for YouTube’s foray into scripted content in 2018.  However, the Google-owned platform did not have much success in attracting subscribers, or viewers, and abandoned that strategy just a few years later.  Cobra Kai received critical acclaim, but did not have the right channel for distribution, so Netflix stepped in, acquiring the library (Seasons 1 and 2, which previously aired on YouTube), the current season (Season 3, which had yet to air) and committing to producing another season.  The acquired seasons that debuted on Netflix in August 2020 had the 9th highest program-week, but the premiere of Season 3 on New Year’s Day hit the 4th spot.  Even more impressive was the fact that the Season 3 appeared on the Top 10 List in its first week, which was only 3 days, compared to all the other highest program-weeks that accumulated viewing over 7 days.  As such, the viewership per day for Cobra Kai was nearly 80% higher than The Crown, even though it had ~30% less minutes over the “week.”

 

The Most Viewed Original TV Shows

After signing a massive $150M overall deal with Netflix in 2017, it took some time before Shonda Rhimes’ first new project to hit the service.  But it seemed to be worth the wait, with Bridgerton garnering the highest viewership in a week for a Season 1 release.  Granted, the Christmas day release probably boosted numbers, as overall viewing on all OTT services was elevated during the holiday period.  Still, it’s then not surprising that Netflix renewed (and expanded) their deal with Shonda Rhimes in July of this year.

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The Top 10 Most Viewed Program-Weeks For Original TV Shows

The Queen’s Gambit permeated the cultural zeitgeist last fall, and was a mainstay on Netflix’s Top 10 List for most of October and November (LINK).  It was also the only limited series to break into Nielsen's overall Top 10 List, highlighting there is correlation between Netflix and Nielsen data.  More importantly was the way the show seemed to continue gather momentum following its release, through word of mouth and social media, even though all episodes were released at once.  It was one of only a handful of Netflix Originals that was on the Nielsen Top 10 List for over 6 weeks, and this was in 2020, when Nielsen was releasing only the overall Top 10 (not 30). 

While it might have taken time for Shonda Rhimes to debut her first Netflix project, Ryan Murphy has been steadily delivering shows to Netflix since he signed his overall deal in 2018.  However, very few of his programs have meaningfully made its way into Nielsen’s rankings.  The lone exception is Ratched, which pre-dated his overall deal, but was one of the most binged shows in the fall of 2020, and already has a second season in the works.

Nielsen - Top 10 Originals (No Duplicates)
The Top 10 Most Viewed Unique Program-Weeks For Original TV Shows

Lucifer is another example of how Netflix can utilize its scale to find new/expanded audiences for quality shows that failed to gain attention on broadcast/cable networks.  Fox cancelled Lucifer in summer of 2018 after 3 seasons of mediocre ratings, but Netflix quickly revived the show for a 4th season, following an outburst of fan support on social media.  Interestingly, Netflix never had the rights to Season 1 to 3 before the renewal, so it was relying solely on external data to make that decision.  Whereas over the last few years, there have been numerous shows cancelled where Netflix has had prior seasons on their service, and can make a more informed decision on whether there is value is reviving these programs.  In some instances they have done so, successfully (Black Mirror) and less successfully (Slasher).  Now a days, any time a show gets cancelled, the first call is usually to Netflix.

 

The Most Viewed Acquired TV Shows

Manifest is the latest example of a show to be rescued by Netflix.  Season 1 and 2 were added to Netflix the same day as the Season 3 finale in June 2020.  Only a few days later, NBC decided not to renew the Warner Bros. program.  All eyes were on the show’s OTT performance, and it has been a breakout hit for Netflix, as well as a mainstay on Nielsen’s Top 10 List.  Netflix was able to use its own viewing data to determine the value of the show, and made the decision to revive the series for a 4th and final season in August.  It’s important to note that these revival productions are usually complex deals.  Many times, the show has already sold international rights as part of the initial financing for the production.  Netflix, as a global service, is increasingly focused on content where they can have worldwide rights, which is one of the reasons for their push into original content.  While a show might have strong viewership in the U.S., or any other country, there is less value for Netflix if it can’t distribute the content to its 200+ million members across the globe.

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The Top 10 Most Viewed Program-Weeks For Acquired TV Shows

Schitt’s Creek is an example of how networks can use Netflix to help promote their shows, and drive viewing to the linear channel.  The Canadian show was relatively unheralded during its first few seasons, with U.S. distribution on the little known PopTV.  But Netflix started licensing the series after its 3rd season, gaining rights to each season ~6 months after it finished airing on linear.  As more viewers started discovering the show on Netflix, it become increasingly popular, culminating in a sweep of the Emmys in 2020.  That coincided with Schitt’s Creek first appearance on Nielsen’s Top 10 List, as many discovered the show for the first time.  Season 6 was added a week later, and it has been a consistent presence on Nielsen’s Top 10 List for the majority of 2021.

Nielsen - Top 10 Acquired (No Duplicates)
The Top 10 Most Viewed Unique Program-Weeks For Acquired TV Shows

The performance of Schitt’s Creek, and the ability to match audiences with shows, becomes important when making determinations around how much to spend on acquired content.  The Office, with its sizable library of 192 episodes, persistently appeared on Nielsen’s Top 10 Lists for 2020.  But following the launch of Peacock in the summer of 2020, NBC was adamant about bringing back the show to bolster their own streaming service.  As fans were made aware the show was going away, viewership on Netflix started growing through the end of the year, as many had one last binge (LINK).  Nielsen doesn’t track Peacock viewership, so it’s impossible to know how well the show is performing on its new platform, but it’s reasonable to say not was well, just based on the disparity in subscribers.

 

The Most Viewed Films

The one category on the Nielsen Top 10 List that Netflix doesn’t dominate is films. There has been a growing focus, especially with large budget tentpole-esque films, such as The Old Guard, Project Power, and forthcoming Red Notice.  But thus far, those films haven’t really resonated on Nielsen’s Top 10 List, despite Netflix’s viewing metrics (The Old Guard had 78M global viewers in its first 28 days; Project Power had 75M).  Wonder Woman 1984 benefitted from a holiday release, as well as being the first major blockbuster film to move day/date on HBO Max.  There is still value from having these films on an OTT service, mainly as a form of customer acquisition, but similar to the traditional box office, there is a steady decay in viewership following the first week.

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The Top 10 Most Viewed Program-Weeks For Films

When it comes to film viewership, kids content is the most important, as it benefits from high levels of rewatching (the new babysitter).  As a result, it’s no surprise to see Disney+ with some of the biggest “hits” over the last year, with Pixar’s Soul and Luca comprising 50% of the most viewed film-weeks.  Both films were originally slated for theatrical releases, but due to the pandemic, Disney made the wise decision to make them exclusive releases on the basic tier of Disney+ instead.  A number of other films from Disney’s library are consistently on Nielsen’s Top 10 Lists, such as Moana and Frozen II.

Nielsen - Top 10 Films (No Duplicates)
The Top 10 Most Viewed Unique Program-Weeks For Films

With box office mainly non-existent in 2020 and slow to recover this year, many studios have decided to sell their films to streaming services, rather than release it in uncertain box office conditions (or wait for a full recovery).  Amazon has been a buyer in this market, snatching up several films from the likes of ViacomCBS and Sony.  Coming 2 America was acquired for a reported $125M, which was far more than it would have generated in box office last fall.  On the other hand, The Tomorrow War was one of Amazon’s first efforts into the blockbuster world, after primarily focusing on mid-budget dramas and indie-like films (i.e. The Big Sick).

As noted before, the domestic box office is still in a recovery mode, and many films aren’t reaching the same level of success as pre-pandemic.  Distribution decisions will get a little tougher as executives look to balance the needs of growing nascent streaming services, with the known revenue from the traditional theatrical release (and subsequent windows) strategy.  And Netflix, which released over 100 films this year, is increasing their investments in this category, particularly around tentpoles.  As audiences get accustomed to viewing those kinds of movies in the home, it may make it harder to generate the same type of attendance in theaters – customers will just wait to watch at home.

 

Original vs. Acquired Programs

Some of the biggest arguments from Netflix bears is that they don’t own any IP, struggle to develop original content, and the majority of their most viewed content is acquired, all at a time when competition is intensifying.  Some aspects are true, but when looking at a platform level, Netflix continues to drive the majority of OTT viewership in the U.S. (LINK), and has the lowest churn (LINK).  While there is no guarantee that this will remain, Netflix’s early start in streaming has built their brand into a destination for consumers.  Audiences open up Netflix because they want to watch something, and trust that on a continual basis, it will find something new/interesting.  Some content may not be as great as hoped, but it’s “good enough” to get viewers coming back, and more importantly, continuing to subscribe.  With other streaming services, the focus has been more about the content itself, particularly with Disney’s focus on MCU TV shows. 

The past year has been unusual to say the least, due to the pandemic, as the majority of content production was shut down during 2020, leading to substantial delays. Netflix’s unique binge model means they had more content than others during the summer of 2020.  But by the turn of the year, it was clear that all the services were starving for new content.  Looking at viewership for the Nielsen’s overall Top 10 shows each week, you can start to see it play out.  As noted before, Netflix dominates these rankings, so when looking at just Netflix’s proportion of this Top 10, there is a similar picture.

Nielsen - Originals vs Acquired
Viewership For Top 10 Overall Programs Each Week By Type

Overall, in the fall of 2020, acquired content made up the majority of Top 10 viewing, up until the holiday period, where there were a couple of spikes due to close releases of “franchises” with The Crown, Virgin River, Christmas Chronicles 2 in November, and Bridgerton, Cobra Kai and Soul in December.  But for most of the first half of 2021, there was noticeable decline in overall viewing minutes, especially from original programming.  This stark at decline in originals is crystal clear at Netflix.  That is now finally starting to recover, with the return of fan favorites Lucifer (June), Virgin River (July) as well as Money Heist (September), and upcoming tentpoles like You (October) Cobra Kai (December) and The Witcher (December).    

Nielsen - Netflix Originals vs Acquired
Viewership For Netflix Programs In The Top 10 Overall Each Week By Type

When looking at the overall Top 10, you can see how each of the competing platforms contributed to original TV show viewing throughout the year, but none were able to sustain high levels (showing the gap between Netflix as a platform).  Disney+ finally aired the first series in their MCU TV pipeline, with WandaVision debuting in January, albeit with weekly releases, which lifted original content viewership.  That continued throughout the year, with additional MCU shows consistently making Top 10 Lists, but never reaching the peaks of a binge release.  This highlights the difference between release strategies, and while neither is necessarily good or bad, they each have their pros and cons.  The new season of The Handmaid’s Tale helped in May, with a spike on its premiere (due to the first 3 episodes dropping), and then continued at lower levels throughout the season.  Additionally, films also contributed to viewing levels of original content, with Amazon’s release of Without Remorse in May, and the debut of Luca on Disney+ in June.

While there has been a recent drop in original program viewing in August, that should be short-lived.  As production levels have returned to somewhat normal levels, there will be a greater source of supply for these services to add content to their streaming services.  These OTT platforms have become a bigger priority for these media companies, and after ramping up spending, they will finally have some output to show for it.

 

The Top Show's Share
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Proportion Of Viewership From Top 10 Overall Programs Attributable To The Most Viewed Program

Another way to look at the viewership of the Top 10 shows is to see how much is driven by the top program.  After all, media is very much a hits driven business. For the most part, the biggest show each week generates 15% to 20% of the overall Top 10 viewership.  Similar to the trends with overall viewership, there is the same decline in the first half of 2021, where the top show was less than 15% of overall viewership, again signaling the lack of hits.  Additionally, the top show during this ~6 month time frame was more frequently an acquired title, rather than an original. When titles like Greys Anatomy, Criminal Minds, and NCIS are the most viewed show in a week, there is an obvious need for fresh content.  That’s not to say that any acquired show leading the pack is a bad sign.  The acquisition of the first 2 seasons of Cobra Kai in September proved valuable and developed an audience ahead of its Season 3 release in January.  Schitt’s Creek hit the top of the charts in October following its Emmy wins and Season 6 release, highlighting Netflix’s value of identifying underserved content.  And looking at June, it’s easy to see why Netflix picked up Season 4 of Manifest following NBC’s cancellation. 

 

Netflix: Recurring Acquired TV Shows

For every direct-to-consumer service, the most important metric is LTV/CAC.  And while splashy new original content gets all the attention, it is the library that is most important for keeping subscribers engaged (and subscribed) over the course of the year.  As an early pioneer in streaming, Netflix was able to lock-up favorable long-term deals with some of broadcast TV’s biggest shows.  It’s no surprise that these shows regularly appear on Nielsen’s Top 10 Lists.  They might not garner the most viewership over the course of the week, but they are remarkably consistent.  The levels of viewing are also no doubt helped by the volume of episodes, a sign of the times of broadcast TV, where seasons routinely had 20+ episodes. 

Nielsen - Netflix Acquired Regulars
Netflix Acquired TV Shows With The Most Average Viewership Per Week

Once again, we can see the popularity of The Office, which left Netflix on 12/31/20, as its average viewing was considerably higher than its peers.  Criminal Minds and Greys Anatomy were on the Top 10 List every single week (The Office was too until it left Netflix), and had the highest weekly viewing averages.  Procedural shows like Criminal Minds and NCIS can be great background viewing for households, who want noise on while doing another activity (i.e. cooking), but don’t want to follow intricate plotlines too closely.

 

Netflix: TV Show Binging

As seen with Netflix films, there is a notable decay in viewing from a program’s initial release date.  This is no different with TV shows.  Over the past year, 80 Netflix TV shows appeared on Nielsen’s Top 10 List during its first week.  For many of these, the initial release was on Friday, so making this list would require substantial viewing in that opening weekend.  There were additional 50 shows that built up their audience, not making the list in the opening weekend, but then appearing during its first full week of viewing.  Those shows are excluded from this analysis, as the focus is only on content that resonated in the opening weekend.  Additionally, to right-size the comparison, the data is broken down by viewership per day, which reduces bias from the release date.

As we can see, the early performance can indicate the relative long-term performance of a show – no different than an opening box office.  As expected, the shows that had the highest viewership in the first week ended up staying on Nielsen’s List for longer periods of time.  This is one reason why Netflix is able to fairly accurately project viewership of its programs in the first 28 days, after just a few days.  There are outliers for a variety of factors (competition, episode length, etc.), but generally the rate of decay is fairly of consistent.

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Netflix TV Shows Appearing On The Top 10 List For At Least 5 Weeks, Starting With Its Opening Week

From Week 1 to 2, regardless of initial viewership, the numbers drop 30% to 40%, with ones on the higher end of that range more likely to drop faster.  From weeks 2 to 3, is where there is the biggest disparity of declines in viewership, from 25% to 50%.  This seems to mark an inflection point for Netflix as to whether they have a real hit on their hands.  Shows that left the Top 10 List after 3 weeks dropped 50% in that week, while those that dropped after 4 weeks, still dropped 44%, which is not that much different.  But for shows that lasted more than 5 weeks, the Week 3 decay rate was just 27%.  And then looking at the declines in Week 4, there isn’t much difference again (31% vs. 26%). This timeline probably indicates that some of these “hits” have larger established audiences built in from prior seasons.  But it would be hard not to also credit Netflix’s strength in discoverability.  Netflix has an abundance of viewing metrics and uses that data to personalize recommendations to each user.  As a result, it will suggest shows outside of a user’s core genre, if it is becoming popular with users that have similar/overlapping tastes.  Some parts of the longevity can be attributed to Netflix finding more viewers after the initial wave of binging upon release.

Of the 80 shows that made up the dataset, 20 were on Nielsen’s Top 10 List for at least 5 weeks.  While it’s tough to judge the “hit rate” without the full list of all releases (those not on Nielsen’s List), having 20 shows last that long is impactful for acquisition and retention.  It indicates there is an ability to have at least one piece of content per month that can break through the volume of noise.  Additionally, the longevity of its viewing, means that it can continue to find new audiences over time, either through the home page or word of mouth.  Still, there rightly should be questions about the efficiency of spending.  Needing 80 shows to get these 20 “hits” would be incredible, but that’s obviously not true.  Funding 200 shows to get these 20 “hits” would be ok, but funding 1,000 shows to find these 20, would be much worse.  Again, even at a show level, it still comes down to how much each show/season costs.  Scripted dramas are much more expensive, so it requires a higher level of viewership to justify the success.  Whereas unscripted content, which is much cheaper, can be just as valuable with substantially lower levels of viewership.  These details are guarded closely by streaming services, but are items to consider beyond just the basic levels of viewership.

 

Netflix: Film Viewership Decay

Netflix’s known strategy has been based around volume, with a consistent focus on letting/encouraging users to binge a TV show, and then providing a new title in the next week(s).  That approach is no different as they grow out their film efforts.  Over the last year, 101 Netflix films (roughly half acquired, half original) appeared on Nielsen’s Top 10 Lists.  Nearly 50% disappeared from the list the following week.  Again, this shouldn’t be surprising (nor concerning).  A film is only ~2 hours, compared to a TV series, which can be 6+ hours, so it is more likely to be consumed over 1 sitting (or 1 week).  For Netflix, they are able to license films for a short period, utilize the home screen to drive viewing in the near term, and then move on to the next title.  60% of the films that only lasted 1 week were acquired films.  There was a gradual shift towards original films for the cohorts that stayed on Nielsen’s Top 10 Lists for multiple weeks.  This shows that original films do not need to be confined to theaters to be successful.  It’s obviously dependent on the quality (and budget), but films can be successful with a straight-to-streaming release.  It’s just that metrics of success are different, and they may not align between talent/creators and the platform.  This last point has been the root of the issue in recent public disputes (Disney, WB).  Part of the problem is stemming from old contracts that never contemplated a DTC release, which gets resolved through more upfront payments to make the creators whole.  But on a going forward basis, new standards will need to be set to quantify the success of a film (outside of box office).  And the lack of transparency from these streaming services, without 3rd party measurement (i.e. Nielsen) makes it even tougher.

Nielsen - Netflix Film
Number Of Netflix Films On The Top 10 List(s)

It’s noteworthy to add, only 3 films were on the list for more than 4 weeks: We Can Be Heroes (4 weeks), Home (5 weeks), The Mitchells vs. The Machines (9 weeks).  One thing they all have in common?  Kids content.  Through all kinds of distribution models, whether it was VHS, DVD, streaming, or YouTube, children’s content has high levels of rewatching, making them incredibly valuable to streaming services who want to keep consumers engaged.  It’s a contributing factor towards the instant success of Disney+, given it launched without any notable originals, nor a significant sized library.  It’s also why there should be frustration at ViacomCBS, as they have really been unable to fully transition Nickelodeon from linear into streaming.  Its value continues to erode, as they are unable to reach the next generation of kids, although that seems set to change.  At the Paramount+ Investor Day earlier this year, it was clear Nickelodeon would be a big source of IP for new content (TV and films) at Paramount+ rather than “renting” it to bigger streaming services.  With the latest executive change, moving Brian Robbins to the head of the studio (in addition to his oversight of Nick), you would expect many more children’s films to be greenlit directly for Paramount+.

 

Disney: Original TV Show Weekly Releases

Starting with the release of Season 2 of The Mandalorian in November 2020, there has been a steady stream of new content (TV + film) debuting on Disney+.  From a TV perspective, the majority of original content will come from their franchises, most notably Marvel and Star Wars.  Following Avengers: Endgame, there was always going to be a reset in the Marvel storytelling universe under Kevin Feige.  While it’s been delayed a bit due to COVID, with some minor scheduling changes, it has returned back (or close) to the initial plans, with 3 new MCU TV shows and 2 new MCU movies.

In part due to the focus on quality over quantity, Disney has opted for a weekly release strategy for its tentpole TV series.  As previously mentioned, this can help elongate the life of a show (and a subscriber) over a few months.  Looking at these 4 shows, it’s obvious to see the benefits of weekly episodes, as viewership can accumulate over the season.  It normally peaks at the last episode, with a rather sharp decline in viewership. 

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Disney Original TV Shows With The Most Viewership

These viewership metrics, especially for a first season, can be influenced by episode length.  For example, WandaVision episodes vary from 30 minutes to 50 minutes, whereas The Falcon and Winter Solder episodes are 45-50 minutes long.  That can contribute to the difference in viewership.  The other thing to note is that Disney originally released new episodes early Friday morning (~3am EST), using the same strategy of leaning into the weekend like others.  However, ahead of the premiere of Loki, Disney changed its strategy to Wednesday releases, where it would not compete with new originals from other OTT services, and it can dominate the water cooler conversation during those first few days.  As a result, Loki has additional days of viewership for each new episode when compared to prior series (on Nielsen Top 10 Lists).  This contributes to its higher levels of viewership.

Disney+ has expanded beyond live action in the MCU world, with the release of What If, an animated show, but the next real test will be with Hawkeye at the end of the year.  However, for Disney+ to take the next step in growth domestically in needs to broaden its original content slate.  With these Marvel TV shows, as well as films, they’ve probably acquired all the Marvel fans already – which Marvel fan that hasn’t yet signed up for Disney+ is all of a sudden going to do so for Hawkeye?  Ideally, more broad general entertainment content would be layered into the service, but for now that is what Hulu is for.  There are complications due to the join ownership with Comcast, which are still to be resolved.  For now, the Disney+ originals are mainly serving a goal of retention.

 

Disney: Film Distribution Experiments

Over the past 18 months, Disney has been one of the few studios to experiment with different types of film distribution while the traditional model has been under pressure during the pandemic.  They’ve taken films originally slated for theaters and distributed them exclusively on Disney+ (Luca, Soul), exclusively on Disney+ Premier Access Window (Mulan), and day/date releases in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access Window (Raya and the Last Dragon, Cruella, Black Widow, Jungle Cruise).  Again, there isn’t much use trying to convert Nielsen viewership numbers into purchases.  Disney announced they generated $60M from Black Widow and $30M from Jungle Cruise in their respective opening weekends from PVOD purchases (globally). 

Mulan was the first film to shift out of a theatrical release, and the only one to move exclusively to Premier Access Window.  By comparing viewership, it seems to have done fairly well, and somewhat in line with Black Widow.  But Disney hasn’t gone back to the distribution model, which suggests it probably underperformed relative to expectations.  Additionally, the box office environment in September 2020 looked quite different than summer 2021. 

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Disney Original Films Released During The Time Period

The next experiments for Bob Chapek came around Disney’s core focus of animation and children’s content.  The first decision was releasing Pixar’s Soul directly on Disney+ (basic tier) on Christmas Day, where it competed with other notable OTT film releases (WB’s Wonder Woman 1984 and Netflix’s The Midnight Sky).  Boosted by the holiday release, the animated film was Disney’s best opening weekend performance.  But one result doesn’t set a strategy, as Disney continued with different types of distribution models.  It released live action film Flora & Ulysses directly onto Disney+ in February, although its viewership was fairly underwhelming, even considering it was new IP.  In March, as movie going started to see signs of improvement, Disney released Raya and the Last Dragon simultaneously in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access Window.  Its box office performance was quite poor, generating only $8.5M in the opening weekend, and any revenue from PVOD purchases did not make up for it.  As a result, Disney swiftly announced the release of Luca straight to Disney+, similar to Soul.  Not surprisingly, it performed just as well, and both films have had consistent levels of viewership over the weeks followings its release.

There were more challenging decisions to be made in the summer of 2021 as the box office had gradually gotten better, with vaccines beginning to be distributed in the late spring, and big tentpole franchises set to be released, including the first Marvel film since Avengers: Endgame.  For its first 3 summer films, Disney used a day/date strategy, with theatrical release and availability on Premier Access Window.  It’s no surprise to see Black Widow garner the most viewership, as the Marvel fandom is powerful, although it’s impossible to discern how many of those viewers would have gone to the theaters if it wasn’t available for purchase on Disney+.  For each of the films, the combined box office and PVOD did not live up to pre-pandemic expectations, but that was anticipated.  Studios can’t afford to keep delaying films waiting for the box office to recover.  These initial releases are bound to underperform, but are necessary to revive the box office over the longer term.  As such, Disney has even reverted back to exclusive theatrical releases (with 45 day windows) for the rest of the calendar year, and Free Guy and Shang-Chi have both performed well, given the environment.

This doesn’t mark the end for direct to Disney+ releases, nor Premier Access Window.  Disney has gathered valuable data from these experiments and can use this information to guide their decision making around future releases.  They now have more options to maximize the monetization of their films and offer greater flexibility to consumers.  Each film will be looked at on a case-by-case to determine what the appropriate strategy will be.  The biggest tentpoles, like Marvel or Star Wars, are unlikely to move away from an exclusive theatrical release.  But there are more opportunities for Disney+ releases around Pixar content, live-action films, as well as movies from 20th Century Studios.

 

Amazon: Film And TV Show Viewership

Similar to Disney+ on the film side, Amazon has experimented with different release strategies for their original TV shows.  For the 2019 release of The Boys, all episodes were dropped at the onset.  But during its second season last year, Amazon opted for a weekly release, knowing they had an established audience.  That fan base could help initiate more word of mouth marketing over the course of the 6 weeks, and drive new viewers to catch-up by binging Season 1.  From this data, it’s hard to tell if that actually happened, but the declining viewership over the course of the season is a fairly different curve than for the original series on Disney+.  For Invincible, Amazon tried a hybrid approach, releasing the first 3 episodes at once, followed by weekly episode releases.  Similar to The Boys, viewership declined over the season, before jumping back up upon the release of the season finale.

Nielsen - Amazon TV
Amazon Original TV Shows With The Most Viewership

The other shows were all released under the binge model, with Panic, The Underground Railroad, and Them marking series debut.  The 7th and final season of Bosch benefited from its library of 60 prior episodes, but still followed a similar decay curve as other Amazon series.  The first season of Bosch actually premiered on Amazon in 2014, which shows how long they have been funding original content, but still don’t move the needle in these Nielsen Top 10 Lists.  Additionally, all of these shows were released on a Friday, similar to the way Netflix programs.  But all of Amazon’s shows had higher viewership in its second week (with 7 full days) compared to the initial weekend.  At Netflix this viewing trend happens fairly frequently among some of their best performing shows, suggesting that Amazon's content is just as good.  And with 50+ million Americans using Amazon Prime, they have a comparable subscriber base, indicating that the flaws around their service may be more on the UX/discovery side rather than the content itself.  There are many other high-quality shows, including award-winning ones, that are unable to find sizable audiences on the platform.

Nielsen - Amazon Film
Amazon Film With The Most Viewership, Starting With Its Opening Week

On the film side, Amazon has been one of the main beneficiaries from the sluggish box office over the past 18 months.  As distribution executives faced the uncertainty of a traditional release, many films were sold to streaming outlets where they could get a guaranteed return, albeit one slightly lower than under normal box office conditions.  Amazon was one of the main buyers, snapping up independent films, as well as big blockbusters.  It’s no surprise that these tentpole films, performed the best, with Eddie Murphy’s Coming 2 America the real standout.  This bodes well for Amazon who has indicated their desire to move into more big-budget productions on both the film and TV side. Additionally, these films were all released on Friday, so Week 1 would be the opening weekend, with Week 2 the first full week.  As a result, their viewing decay is in line with other streaming platforms, as well as the traditional box office.