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Must-See TV Redefined: Netflix Survey Reveals Which Episodes Draw Viewers in For Keeps
November 28, 2016  | By Alex Strachan

We all know about binge-viewing. It’s the business model that drives streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, in the same way — not so long ago — it was the driving force behind DVD box sets.

Binge-viewing isn’t just about changing audience habits, though. Just as technology has empowered viewers to watch what they want, when they want, it’s giving content providers like Netflix and Amazon more information about what pulls different audiences to different shows, and, more crucially, when.

When we become hooked on a specific series — hooked enough that we’ll sit down to watch an entire season in a matter of days or, in more extreme cases, in a single sitting — is the kind of information executives at the traditional TV networks are desperate to know, in this age of splintering audiences and spiralling production costs.

The normally information-averse Netflix caused a stir several weeks ago when it announced the results of a survey of viewers’ habits in the UK. Netflix looked at several dozen series on its international service and determined how many episodes it took for viewers to become addicted to specific shows.

The results were startling, to put it mildly. Few viewers — none, actually — were hooked by the pilot episode alone, for example, refuting the widely held notion that the pilot counts for everything in TV. It may be that the huge budgets lavished on the first hour of a new TV drama, to get that all-important opening-night number, is money ill spent.

The Netflix results prove what TV critics have suspected for some time — even if studio executives and network presidents have been slower to accept — which is that the fourth or fifth episode of a new series is just as important to courting a loyal audience than that first hour.

Nearly every show that Netflix monitored for its survey had a different audience threshold. No surprise there. Stranger Things (top and right), for example, hooked audiences early — episode two — while others, like Gilmore Girls, took considerably longer. That doesn’t mean Gilmore Girls is less important to Netflix than Stranger Things. Netflix did, after all, decide to revive Gilmore Girls after a considerable absence, just as it did with Arrested Development.

No one can explain with certainty why some programs pull in viewers more quickly than others, of course. The fun lies in looking at the figures for individual programs and then trying to spot a pattern. The big lesson for network executives at the traditional broadcast networks, though, is to show more patience when deciding whether to cancel a series right out of the gate. Seinfeld is a classic example of a series that took time to find its feet — then grew to become a once-in-a-generation cultural phenomenon. The broadcast networks’ desire for instant ratings gratification means that Seinfeld would not have made it to a second or third season today.

That’s not news, of course. What the Netflix figures show is that it isn’t just the occasional flash-in-the-pan like Seinfeld that takes time to draw audiences into the point of infatuation — it’s also true of programs as varied as Gotham and Jane the Virgin.

These aren’t general audience viewers, remember — these are fans who become engaged, impassioned and eventually addicted to a show to the point where they’ll watch every single episode as soon as they can.

Netflix’s UK service defines a successful series as one in which two-thirds of subscribers who reach the turnaround episode then go on to finish the season. The study was designed to find out at which episode a viewer is most likely to finish the first season of a series.

Stranger Things took three episodes to rope viewers in for the full term; Making a Murderer, Narcos (left), Jessica Jones and Aziz Ansari’s Masters of None took four.

Netflix also looked at past years. In 2015, figures show viewers were hooked on Breaking Bad after just two episodes. House of Cards was close behind, at three episodes; the superhero show Daredevils needed five to convince viewers to stay.

Netflix is keen on repeats, too: Orange is the New Black, unsurprisingly, is its most re-watched program.

Netflix still refuses to release audience numbers for specific shows. Paid monthly subscriptions count more than the numbers for individual programs, Netflix executives insist. That’s their story, and they’re sticking to it.

Netflix may be reluctant to divulge ratings for specific shows, but it’s only too happy to share what it knows about which shows “get binged” the fastest.

There’s no easily discernible pattern, which is what makes the guesswork over “why” so much fun. There’s no rhyme or pattern to serialized dramas, for example. Shonda Rhimes' Grey’s Anatomy and How to Get Away with Murder reached their “must-see” threshold in just two episodes, for example, while the equally serialized Jane the Virgin (right) and Gotham needed seven episodes.

Here are a few of the shows surveyed, alongside episode descriptions provided by Netflix itself. Keep in mind that, while this was a UK survey of UK viewers, it’s hard to imagine North American habits being that much different.

Sure, the list is incomplete and the methodology less than scientific. Even so, it’s quite the conversation starter. And it’s one small step toward the answer for an ever more important question: At what point, when sampling a new TV series, do we decide to stay? 

The only clear answer, at least for now, is not the pilot.

The 100, Episode 2, “Having discovered that Jasper may still be alive, Clarke, Bellamy, Octavia, Finn, and Monty set out on a mission to locate their friend.”

American Horror Story (original series): Episode 4, “Two of the house’s previous residents, interior designers Chad and Patrick, give the Harmons decorating advice.”

The Americans, Episode 3, “Philip and Elizabeth discover that their murdered colleague Robert had a wife they never knew about; Stan’s investigation into Robert’s death puts him hot on their trail.”

The Fall, Episode 2, “Gibson’s worst fears are realized as Spector’s murder spree in Belfast continues and a reckless decision has her facing some very real consequences.”

The Flash, Episode 4, “To steal a priceless diamond, Captain Cold acquires a specialized gun that can slay the Flash. Meanwhile, Joe disapproves of Iris and Eddie dating.”

Gilmore Girls (right), Episode 7, “Rory shares a romantic moment with Dean, but doesn't tell Lorelai. When Lorelai hears about it from Mrs. Kim, she invites Dean over for movie night.”

The Good Wife, Episode 6, “Alicia agrees to a conjugal visit with Peter to get information from him because her client was convicted during his regime as state’s attorney.”

Gotham, Episode 7, “Penguin reveals a new element of his manipulative strategy, forcing Gordon to deal with the consequences of his decision to spare Penguin's life.”

Grey’s Anatomy, Episode 2, “Meredith puts her career on the line to save a newborn in the hospital nursery.”

How to Get Away with Murder, Episode 3, “A soccer mom arrested for a petty crime turns out to be a terrorist; Annalise represents a college football star linked to Lila’s disappearance.”

iZombie, Episode 4, “A new case involving a brutal gang murder puts suspicions about Clive’s past into Liv’s head. Major finally makes a decision on his new roommate.”

Jane the Virgin, Episode 7, “Jane finds it difficult to avoid Rafael when her friends take her to one of his clubs; Xo and Rogelio plan a double date; Petra schemes to make trouble for Rafael.”

Jessica Jones, Episode 4, “A new case demands attention as Jessica tries to find out who's spying on her for Kilgrave. Trish’s radio show yields unexpected consequences.”

The Last Kingdom, Episode 2, “Caught between his scheming uncle Aelfric and pitiless Viking warlord Ubba, Uhtred goes on the run and seeks out Alfred, the man who would be king.”

Making a Murderer, Episode 4, “An unexpected confession casts doubt on Steven’s role in the murder case, but the new suspect gives conflicting accounts of what occurred.”

Master of None (left), Episode 4, “Dev has a series of eye-opening experiences after he encounters some casual racism in TV auditions.”

Narcos, Episode 3, “Murphy encounters the depths of government corruption when he and Peña try to derail Escobar's political ambitions by proving he’s a narco.”

Orphan Black, Episode 2, “With a body in her car and nowhere to turn, Sarah is forced to continue her con and earn “Beth” a second chance on the force.”

Outlander, Episode 5, “On the road with Dougal and his men to collect rents, Claire encounters troubling scenes and begins to suspect a hidden scheme.”

Prison Break, Episode 3, “Michael encounters problems bringing Abruzzi and Sucre into his plan. Meanwhile, Lincoln considers having a family member attend his execution.”

Stranger Things, Episode 2, “Lucas, Mike, and Dustin try to talk to the girl they found in the woods. Hopper questions an anxious Joyce about an unsettling phone call.”

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