Friday, November 1, 2013

Beware of shifting standards -- more fun with the Netflix narrative

This is another example of the Netflix narrative and press release journalism, but I probably would have flagged this even without those connections simply because it nicely illustrates one of the classic warning signs to look for in stories about numbers.

Here's the headline I saw on a Netflix via a Yahoo link.
Netflix tops 40 million customers total, more paid US subscribers than HBO
Do you notice anything funny? Check out the first part "40 million customers total" and compare it to "more paid US subscribers." Why shift from total to US mid-headline?

Maybe following the link will clear things up:
Netflix's results for the third quarter have arrived and one of its most important numbers, the total amount of US subscribers (not including trial accounts), has reached 29.93 million, more than HBO's last count of 28.7 million. Last year at this time it had notched 25.1 million US customers, and including trial subscribers it passed HBO's US customer base back in April. Internationally it's up to 9.19 million subscribers and is anticipating that it will add more than three million customers total in the next quarter. New original series Orange is the New Black has been a hit and while Netflix still isn't releasing viewing numbers, it says the show will end the year "as our most watched original series ever." Yes, bigger than House of Cards.
I'm a bit confused as to how that 'tops' 40 million (29.93 + 9.19 > 40?), but that's not relevant to this conversation, nor is the fact that, since we have no idea how many people watched House of Cards (Netflix is notoriously closed-mouthed on the subject), knowing that Orange beat it doesn't tell us that much.

What is relevant here is that this is very much a Netflix = HBO2.0 story and that it uses both the worldwide total for Netflix and the small US advantage over HBO to make its case. That leads to the obvious question, how does Netflix compare to HBO worldwide?

Thanks to Wikipedia, we know the answer is "not that well."
HBO also broadcasts in at least 151 countries covering approximately 114 million subscribers worldwide.
Of course, all of the usual caveats apply -- Netflix is a good service. NFLX may still be a bargain at $350 a share. -- but when it comes to the coverage, we still don't have a fact-based narratives.(though we do sometimes have narrative-based facts).

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