October 22, 2020

Opinion | We have no idea what pop culture is really popular anymore. That’s a problem.

Difficulty in determining what, exactly, attracts eyes and drives revenue isn’t exactly new. In his book “The Hollywood Economist,” Edward Jay Epstein highlighted the emergence of harder-to-parse home video and DVD markets as a way studios massaged the bottom line. A movie that might have been a flop in theaters had a chance for second life in the home video marketplace; for a while, as that DVD revenue flowed in, it was almost hard to lose money on a movie.

When it comes to home viewing, TiVo and the DVR revolution reduced our ability to rely on ratings data. These technologies supercharged a practice that was previously a hassle: time-shifting (i.e., watching a show after it airs) and advertisement-skipping by recording programs on VHS. Once DVRs were commonplace, live viewership numbers measured by Nielsen failed to be of much use. Now the important metric was now live-plus-three, or the number of live eyeballs added to the number of people who tuned in over the next three days.

Add to this already complicated landscape the rise of Netflix, which has made TV’s vast wasteland infinite, and competing services, among them HBO Max, Apple TV Plus, Hulu, Disney Plus, Amazon Prime and the Criterion Channel. When they deign to give us data at all, these outlets offer ever-shifting, and rarely useful, information to consumers about who is watching what; Netflix currently defines a “viewer” as someone who watches at least two minutes of a program.

Another tier of services, including Amazon, Apple, your cable and satellite companies, Fandango, the Alamo Drafthouse and Vudu, offer pay-per-view movies. And while most provide charts with best-selling titles, none of them explain how many rentals it takes to top the list. And, as a cherry on top, we have little in the way of useful box-office data because we have few big releases in theaters. The companies that distribute the few movies that are playing in cinemas — looking at you, Warner Bros. and “Tenet” — are giving out dribs and drabs of information, at best, in comparison with the weekly box-office reports that once were standard.

We used to live in a world where we knew how many people were watching TV shows via the Nielsen ratings and we knew how many people were seeing movies via box-office data. We could decide what to watch and calibrate our discussions about culture accordingly, based on a decent sense of what was popular and what wasn’t. (Of course, we knew that quality programming on TV and in theaters could trump quantity of consumption.)

But now no one — outside of those few granted unlimited access to user data by Netflix and its ilk — knows who’s watching what or in what quantity or for how long. This lack of transparency doesn’t just affect what we talk about; it’s going to affect when we get new movies and television shows, and how we get them.

Take the scramble to figure out how many people, exactly, watched Disney’s new live-action “Mulan.” One outrageous estimate promulgated by Yahoo Finance suggested the film took in more than a quarter-billion dollars in video-on-demand rentals just in the United States in its opening weekend. (Even the co-founder of the firm that provided Yahoo Finance with the data responded with the equivalent of “whoa, hold on a sec.”) This absurd figure was then used as evidence by the theater-fearful, movie-hungry denizens of Twitter as verifiable proof not just that “Tenet” should have gone to home video immediately, but that it was in the studio’s financial interest to do so.

A more cautious, almost certainly more accurate, measure by the pseudonymous Entertainment Strategy Guy puts “Mulan’s” take closer to $36 million, suggesting the film — which was available for purchase by Disney Plus subscribers only — will generate around $90 million domestically. Not quite a disaster for Disney, but certainly not the sort of figure that will encourage it to put the now-delayed “Black Widow” on the service.

The simple point here is that none of us really know how well “Mulan” has done. I think we all suffer as a result.

We need some sort of accountability process, some sort of measuring stick: an industry standard that, like box-office data, provides us all a common starting point for a cultural conversation.

Not only so the hot-take artists like your humble narrator here know what, exactly, to take-hot on. But also, so people who cover the industry can have an idea what exactly is working. So there can be a discussion of whether the mega-deals doled out by streaming services to showrunners are worth it. So writers and directors can get a better sense of what people are watching and respond intelligently. So we can have a rational discussion about the fate of movie theaters — a sector of the economy deemed inessential by folks like Andrew Cuomo that nevertheless provides 136,000 jobs as of March, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — and how important it is to encourage their survival.

Knowing what’s popular isn’t the end of the conversation. It’s the start of many more important ones.

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