Netflix Tops Networks at Picking Shows, But HBO Still Holds the Throne

house of cards

There’s a famous anecdote about Netflix original ‘House of Cards,’ that the streaming service used a heavy dose of viewership data to make the decision to sign the show, virtually guaranteeing success.

According to Netflix, subscribers prefer Kevin Spacey’s acting, David Fincher’s directing, political dramas, and a BBC series of the same name so with this information, they argued compellingly that ‘House of Cards’ was a no-brainer. Current subscribers would love it, generating enough buzz to encourage water cooler discussions that would create an increase in new subscriptions. As the story goes, this ended up being a huge win for the streaming service.

Is Netflix actually better at picking shows than traditional networks?

After the first season’s victory lap, there was a lot of talk about the potential for Netflix to be better at picking critically-acclaimed shows than traditional television networks. Certainly with examples like ‘Orange is the New Black,’ ‘Daredevil,’ and recently ‘Narcos,’ it seems likely that such a statement might have a bit of truth so we decided to do some research.

We pulled Rotten Tomatoes critic review data from 2013 to the present day. This is the timeline following the release of House of Cards’ first season. We filtered down to include only the non-reality prime time shows from each of the major networks as well as Netflix and HBO and then compared them all to one another; you can see the full results in the chart below:

average rotten tomatoes score

As you can see above, Netflix leads the major networks when it comes to picking shows, at least critically, but HBO still has the best touch.

Now a few observations from our research:

  • ABC has taken the most  swings with a substantially larger number of sitcoms and dramas ordered and cancelled in the 2013-present timeline.
  • Netflix has three shows with ratings below 50, HBO has zero but two are close (‘The Brink,’ ‘Hello Ladies’), ABC and NBC both have eight shows below 50, CBS and FOX have five each.
  • We took a brief look back at NBC, the current lowest of the networks, and they are on a downward trend from the previous time period, while the other major networks are floating relatively close to their previous numbers.
  • There is a healthy correlation between shows ranked poorly on Rotten Tomatoes and cancellations, but of course there are also some massive outliers, such as NBC’s Hannibal.
  • If we include The CW in these metrics, they end up way ahead of everyone else with an average score of 87 on Rotten Tomatoes, but with a much smaller sample size. The network has reportedly been struggling with live TV ratings, but their content  is always a Hulu and Netflix favorite.

So are Netflix and HBO actually that much better than the broadcast networks at picking shows? It certainly seems they have a slight advantage, but there are other factors that likely influence this success.

“Netflix leads the major networks when it comes to picking shows, at least critically, but HBO still has the best touch.”

For starters, Netflix and HBO are not operating under the same constraints as network television, and have a lot more flexibility across the board when it comes to production. They don’t have the FCC breathing down their necks for every curse word, they don’t have to rely on high-value time slot performance for advertisers, and aren’t stuck on traditional television schedules.

game of thronesIt’s also possible that HBO shows get a natural bump from the very nature of HBO being known for quality. In other words, it’s more likely that we will perceive a series on HBO as being good because, in our minds, HBO doesn’t produce bad television. This is likely a well-earned reputation, though, and thus also attracts the best and brightest talent when it comes to making new shows.

Lastly, it’s important to remember that it’s not like network television is randomly throwing darts at a board determining what shows to order. They use plenty of data themselves and this isn’t some new trend. However, Netflix is of course gifted a lot more specific streaming data, which is now greatly influencing their decisions and enabling them to cast a wider net. Traditional networks seem to move cautiously, with CBS being a great example; the network has very similar formats for each of their dramas and sitcoms. Understanding their viewership enables them to reproduce success but perhaps within a more limited scope.

It’s still early to say Netflix originals will consistently be able to out-perform their network television counterparts on the aggregate, but it’s a good sign that their current record has been so positive as the service certainly seems ready to double down on this effort.