Talk to any Netflix executive, and they’ll likely boast about the popularity of Stranger Things or Bridgerton. What’s less likely to come up in conversation is how many hours of Criminal Minds subscribers are watching.Week after week, the same ViacomCBS titles appear on Nielsen’s most watched streaming lists, often making up 40 to 50% of the most watched acquired series on Netflix. Even recognizing there are limitations to Nielsen data (it only measures the United States, not every streaming service is included at this time, and it still doesn’t count mobile viewing), the overarching story is one that speaks to the importance of “syndicated programming” even now.
Streaming is a balancing act. Ordering and acquiring series ideally accomplishes two tasks: bring customers in (acquisition) and keep them from canceling (retention). When companies like Netflix are trying to bring new customers in, having big splashy original titles (Stranger Things, The Witcher, Extraction) is key. When trying to convince customers not to leave, having “snackable TV” is key. This is long-running series like Grey’s Anatomy and Criminal Minds — shows that hit syndication levels.
The Best Dramas on Netflix Right Now
NBCUniversal, ViacomCBS, WarnerMedia, and Disney (with ABC and Fox) have a key advantage in this situation. Their catalogs span decades, and they can license those series or films to companies that need more programming like Netflix. Up until about 2015, this worked for everyone. Netflix borrowed content while the media companies earned additional revenue through licensing.
Then, everything changed. Media companies like Disney, WarnerMedia, ViacomCBS, and NBCUniversal decided to develop their own streaming services, pulling some of the most popular programming from Netflix — Friends, The Office — in the process. Executives started asking why Netflix got to build a mammoth streaming service while using their own titles.
Soon, their question became “can we use our own series alongside new shows and films to build our own streaming services?” They thought so. That’s why Paramount+, Discovery+, Peacock, HBO Max, and a dozen others exist. In return, Netflix executives started throwing money at developing their own original series and films, doubling and then tripling original content spend (potentially reaching north of $18 billion in 2021) to try and keep customers coming back to Netflix night after night.
All of which leads us to Nielsen’s ongoing reports and the lesson about “syndicated” titles in a streaming-first moment. More than half of the most watched programming this week on streaming services that Nielsen tracks came from ViacomCBS, NBCUniversal, or Disney, but streamed on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. Coming 2 America, Schitt’s Creek, Grey’s Anatomy, Criminal Minds, Good Girls, and NCIS are all present in the top 10. Coming 2 America alone generated more than 1.4 billion minutes of watch time (about 13 million streams).
Netflix’s First Big 100-Episode Show
Trying to break down actual viewership per episode of each series through Nielsen data is tricky. Since Nielsen tracks total viewing time, it’s impossible to see if 18 million viewers watched an episode of Criminal Minds or if tens of thousands of people are marathoning the show. It’s also why films typically don’t show up as often. Movies usually have less total viewing time than a TV series.
Instead, we can look at the recurring titles and start to examine what Netflix needs. Netflix knows how to make hits, but it doesn’t yet have a 100-episode plus series that people want to throw on again and again. Netflix has no problem getting people in the door, but even top performers aren’t necessarily leading to multiple rewatches — and having a library of shows or films with multiple viewings potential requires a pretty big library.
“I know they’re going down the original route, and I know that they believe they can do it that way, but the problem is that their hit rate needs to be a lot higher,” Kasey Moore, owner of What’s On Netflix, told IGN. “Even with HBO shows…not every single HBO show is a hit right, so leaning on a back catalogue is very, very useful.”
Creating these types of shows — series that run longer than five seasons and people constantly return to — is difficult. Everyone wants to do it; everyone is trying to do it. To hit “syndication levels,” shows need time to breathe. In traditional television entertainment, if a show was popular and hit the 85-100 episode mark, it could then be syndicated elsewhere. Not only did this bring in additional revenue for the networks, but it notably helped boost the interest in shows still on the air. When The Big Bang Theory started its syndication rotation, the series’ sixth season saw an increase in viewership because people discovered the show.
Netflix has a handful of shows with more than four or five seasons. But of those, there aren’t many that fans are constantly revisiting. The Ranch ran for eight seasons, but people aren’t referencing it often like the internet does with New Girl or The Simpsons. This is where time to breathe is crucial. If Netflix can make people’s favorite show, as co-CEO Ted Sarandos has told analysts he wants to, then people will return again and again. The only way for Netflix to develop the next generation’s favorite comedy or procedural is through time and patience: find the golden egg in a new procedural or comedy, let it run, and build a new library with shows that people love just as much as The Office and Criminal Minds.
It’s already happening. This week’s Nielsen data also found that Longmire and Orange is the New Black popped back into the top 10 most watched original series. Both shows ended years ago, and neither has seen any notable action on social media that hints at spikes in viewership. Subscribers could be revisiting or deciding to watch the shows for the first time, which is a good sign for Netflix. Something like The Witcher or Shadow and Bone might bring in new subscribers right now, but Netflix is also beginning to build up a library of titles that people return to. This is integral as subscriber growth in the US slows, and Netflix transitions to figuring out how to keep current subscribers happy.
For all the hubbub about Netflix canceling too many shows, the company isn’t actually canceling more series than its competitors. Netflix orders more, and therefore it appears like a higher volume of series are canned after one season. More than two-thirds of series with two seasons are renewed according to content head Bela Bajaria. The company also doesn’t participate in antiquated television practices like pilot season; networks cancel quite a few shows too, but they do so a couple of episodes in.
Executives now have to determine what they’re missing — and what their audience is seeking out. Not having a breakout procedural like Criminal Minds, Grey’s Anatomy, or NCIS, for example, is one area that Netflix can invest in. This is especially true for its US audience. Teams at Netflix are prioritizing global expansion and distribution (considering that the US makes up a smaller portion of Netflix’s total subscriber base and international shows can travel well this makes sense), but focus domestically needs to pivot to building shows that people come back to again and again. It’s not spending less, but spending better.
Do You Need Paramount+?
The other side of this equation is what it means for ViacomCBS. If Criminal Minds, NCIS, Avatar: The Last Airbender, iCarly, and others are so popular, why aren’t they on Paramount+ exclusively? If ViacomCBS had a rough idea of when Paramount+ was going to launch, why didn’t they save Coming 2 America as a launch title instead of licensing it to Amazon?
ViacomCBS’ strategy is peculiar to say the least. Everything is seemingly up in the air. Moore of New on Netflix refers to the company’s current theory behind its Netflix partnership as generating “teasers” for customers. For example, only two seasons of iCarly are on Netflix. The other seasons — and the upcoming new iCarly series — will stream exclusively on Paramount+. ViacomCBS is betting that if people will want to watch the entire series badly enough they’ll sign up for Paramount+ and watch on a new platform instead of relying on Netflix for only part of the show.
The problem with this theory is it suggests people will go through the frustrating trouble of signing up for another streaming service to finish watching a show. Paramount+ has a terrific library, but if people are getting what they want and then some out of Netflix, there’s no real reason to sign up for Paramount+. Netflix is muscle memory. People don’t think about opening the app, they just do. There’s something always on Netflix. Paramount+ is new, but it also hasn’t given anyone a reason beyond nostalgia to sign up for yet another platform.
CEO Bob Bakish has repeatedly told analysts and investors that part of the company’s strategy is to license out series on a non-exclusive basis to bring in additional revenue. This will help cover the costs of getting a streaming service up and running — alongside allocating more shows and films for Paramount+ exclusively in years to come. As ViacomCBS continues to use this strategy, however, Netflix executives have time to develop and find their own hits, often looking at what’s working for competitors and developing a version for their subscribers.
Ultimately, ViacomCBS is going to be in the same position as NBCUniversal and WarnerMedia. Executives will have to decide whether or not to lean into licensing popular series in full for a higher fee and earning reliable revenue that way or testing exclusivity waters. The only way to get people to sign up for streaming services is to make it an undeniable need. That’s hard to do when a number of series are also available on Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu. ViacomCBS has to prove why Paramount+ is necessary; its series right now are simply helping Netflix subscribers make the easy decision to renew their subscription month after month.
Julia Alexander is IGN’s top streaming editor. Have a story tip? DM her on Twitter @loudmouthjulia or request her Signal number by emailing email@example.com.