Last week, Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry debuted on Apple TV Plus. The documentary became the “biggest hit title for young adult audiences that Apple has had so far across its slate of films and TV series,” according to Deadline, drawing a “record-breaking 33 percent new viewers to the service.”

Sounds impressive, right? It would if Apple provided any kind of context for declarations like “biggest hit” and “record-breaking” subscriber adds. Instead, we’re left wondering:

  • How many subscribers does Apple TV Plus have currently?
  • How many people actually watched Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry?
  • How many of those new subscribers are on free Apple TV Plus trial plans?
  • How do those viewership numbers and subscriber additions compare to every other title?

Without any of this context, 10 million people could have watched Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry or 10,000 people. I was one of them! But there’s a stark difference between those two figures. In a pre-streaming world, if the documentary was released in theaters or debuted on a network like MTV, there would be actual statistics. Weekly box office reports and Nielsen breakdowns exist to provide public insight into how well a movie or TV show is performing.

It’s not just Apple either — with a stronger push to streaming, there’s no reason for companies to divulge numbers. As more original series and films premiere on streaming services, and as more films get taken out of theaters early to move onto a streaming service, the idea of what’s considered an official hit becomes much more difficult to track. Here are just some examples for the past few months:

  • Hulu’s Happiest Seasonwas the “most-watched film across all acquired and Hulu Original films” over its opening weekend.
  • Just a few weeks prior to Happiest Season, Hulu’s Run set the record for the “most-watched film ever on Hulu during its opening weekend.”
  • HBO Max’s The Little Things “quickly shot up to number one” in its opening weekend, according to WarnerMedia executive Andy Forssell.

As of right now, there’s no reason for the companies to release numbers. It’s a pick ‘em on will strategy. A movie or TV show does astoundingly well, and that’s a good reason for a company like Disney or Netflix to send out a blast. (Video game publishers use a similar numbers-boasting strategy.) Netflix will note that 99 million household accounts watched at least two minutes of Extraction within the first four weeks of its release. It sounds really good! It’s also, unfortunately, the most upfront a streaming service is about viewership. But how many people finished watching Extraction compared to how many people might have thrown it on and decided after five minutes to just watch The Witcher again or do something else entirely?

None of this matters to the streaming companies. Netflix has more than 203 million subscribers and is growing. Disney Plus, Hulu, HBO Max, and Peacock are also growing, based on quarterly earnings. Apple has never announced how many subscribers Apple TV Plus has, but third-party analyst firms have repeatedly pointed out that a significant portion of its subscriber base is using free trial periods.

The box office doesn’t dictate quality, but it does track global cultural phenomenons. As Todd Boyd, a professor of popular culture at the University of Southern California told NPR, “they’re like some huge event that for many people is an option for them to say that ‘I participated in something that a lot of other people also participated in,’ and this allows them to be defined as part of a group.” In the case of Avengers: Endgame, people rallied to try to make it the most successful film of all time, tracking daily box office numbers.

Last year, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos told analysts the company is making the equivalent of billion-dollar movies. The billion-dollar movie — a new Star Wars, Fast and Furious, Marvel, or DC title — speaks to the power of a cultural phenomenon, of a true pop culture moment. It’s a sign of something celebrated and experienced with millions of other people around the world — people who went to a movie and likely sat through the entire thing. As Bilge Ebiri wrote at Vulture, having public data about people who watched an entire movie on Netflix or Hulu or HBO Max “tells us not just whether a movie or show made it to the right people, but also whether those people stuck with it or not — maybe even, gasp, enjoyed it.”

With the future of theaters so uncertain, this will only become a bigger problem being brought over to streaming platforms. Even less data will be made available about what swaths of people are watching. As a result, more viewing experiences will feel increasingly isolating. People like partaking in popular culture, in watching the hit that everyone else is watching — but figuring out what’s a hit and what isn’t is getting much harder to determine.


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