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The 8 Biggest Takeaways From Netflix’s Latest Ratings Dump

May 29, 202411 Mins Read

The Crown; One Piece.
Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos: Netflix

Another six months, another Netflix data blast — this time dumped unceremoniously in a blog post on the Thursday before Memorial Day weekend. Still, more information is better than no information, and the streamer’s second “What We Watched” engagement report, compiling views between last July and December 2023, is its latest officially zoomed-out picture of how Netflix movies and TV shows are doing — despite the shortcomings of crunching the numbers in aggregate on a spreadsheet that, combined, is nearly 16,000 rows long.

The biggest movie of the back half of 2023 wasn’t a major awards contender nor a bombastic blockbuster — it was an adaptation of Leave the World Behind, which despite an apocalyptic premise often feels more like a stage play than it does a feature film. And the biggest single season of TV wasn’t buzzy awards bait or even one of a revived catalogue hit like Suits — it was an American-produced, live-action adaptation of a Japanese comic full of superpowered pirate antics and snot-nosed crying. Both were notable titles, to be sure, but it would have been hard to predict that either of them would wind up as chart-toppers.

One new wrinkle in the new report: It’s now accounting for a title’s runtime, incorporating it into a “views” stat (time spent watching divided by a title’s length). This evens the field somewhat between movies and TV shows, something that Kasey Moore, founder of the pioneering tracking site What’s on Netflix, finds useful. “Incorporating the new views metric highlights the two purposes of movies and series in my eyes,” he tells Vulture. “TV shows still suck up the majority of viewing hours, but lots of people do come in for the movies, contrary to popular belief.” Moore was also struck by the continued popularity of children’s programming on Netflix. “So much of the top 100 (views or viewing hours) are family, kids, and animated titles,” he says, noting that the most popular titles are from outside studios such as DreamWorks, Illumination, Moonbug, and Nickelodeon, “which must be a source of concern.”

Moore also noticed how the premiere of a new season of a show brings new attention to past installments of the series. “When new seasons of Sweet Magnolias and Virgin River both released, it saw meaningful bumps in those earlier seasons. You can see it, too, with Squid Game: The Challenge giving a bump to Squid Game.”

With considerations like those in mind, we’ve combed through the sheet and pulled out the eight most noteworthy highlights therein.

Maybe all you really need to engineer a global hit on Netflix is Julia Roberts and an argument for physical media. But even accounting for her star wattage, Sam Esmail’s Leave the World Behind, which topped the second half of the year’s film charts in just three weeks (it was released December 8), is a curious worldwide hit. (The last movie Esmail directed made less than $20,000 at the box office.) Consider the three runners-up that its 121 million views eclipsed: Gal Gadot’s blockbuster Heart of Stone (109.6 million views across more than 20 weeks), a host of family-friendly fare including Adam Sandler’s Leo (96 million views in 40 days), and the dystopian Spanish-refugee saga Nowhere (86.2 million views in over 16 weeks).

The movie that beat those movies is an anti-blockbuster that — some shocking imagery and set pieces aside — remains a mostly quiet adaptation of a mostly quiet book that never escapes the Long Island suburbs. In some ways it feels closer to The Killer or May December than a traditionally explosive title like Zack Snyder’s first Rebel Moon entry, which debuted December 21 and by the end of the year had not yet beaten longtime Netflix library title Paw Patrol: The Movie.

One Piece, based on Eiichiro Oda’s long-running manga, notched 71.6 million views globally — almost 20 million more than the runner-up, Germany’s Dear Child. Netflix’s track record with live-action adaptations is spotty at best (Cowboy Bebop’s second-week viewership fell like a rock and it was swiftly canceled), but it’s still cultivated an anime fanbase with high-profile legacy acquisitions like Pokémon and Neon Genesis Evangelion, as well as new simulcasts like Vinland Saga — to say nothing of the 41(!) separate batches of licensed One Piece anime episodes on the platform that added up to 50 million views globally in the second half of 2023. Those numbers are linked; the question going forward will be what Netflix can do with a Japanese title not named One Piece.

One of the first big moves Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos made on the feature-film front was signing Adam Sandler to a multi-picture deal in 2014. A decade later, that pact is still bearing fruit: Two of the Sandman’s movies — the animated Leo (96 million views) and the teen comedy You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah (60.6 million views) — ranked among the streamer’s 15 biggest films in the second half of 2023. But Sandler’s value is not just in his new material. Three other Netflix-produced movies featuring the former SNL legend (2019’s Murder Mystery and its spring 2023 sequel, as well as 2020’s Hubie Halloween) managed to draw more than 10 million views years after their releases, as did both of Sandler’s Grown Ups movies. And proving once again that critical acclaim and audience taste aren’t always in sync, some of Sandler’s more acclaimed roles didn’t do quite as well: Uncut Gems notched a relatively modest 3.1 million views during the report period, while Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) managed a mere 900,000 views. On the other hand, both did better than the critically panned Sandy Wexler (600,000 views).

Last month, a New York Times story about new Netflix film chief Dan Lin carried a rather ominous headline for fans of the streamer’s more prestige plays, warning its new strategy was “more about the audience, less about auteurs.” If that’s the case, it’s quite possible Lin could be reacting to the underwhelming performance of some of Netflix’s most acclaimed films last fall. For instance, despite near-universal raves for Colman Domingo and Rustin, the film generated a meager 2.6 million views during its first two months on the platform. The Todd Haynes–directed May December did better, but its 6.8 million views doesn’t even place it (or Rustin) among Netflix’s top 400 (that’s not a typo) movie titles during the second half of 2023.

And while the much more high-profile Maestro came out too late in the year (December 20) to get a fair read on its overall audience, Bradley Cooper’s opus never once landed in Netflix’s weekly top ten lists, and its overall audience during the last 11 days of the year — 6.7 million views — suggests that the film did not go on to become a blockbuster once its seven Oscar nominations were announced in January. By comparison, the Annette Bening/Jodi Foster team-up Nyad, with 16.3 million views (and a two-week run on Netflix’s global top-ten list in September) was a relative smash. But even it ended up with far fewer views than Love Is in the Air, a Hallmark-style rom-com from Australia (tagline: “When skies clear, hope shines through”) that tallied up an impressive 27.3 million views — and likely was produced at a fraction of the cost of those other movies.

Matt Rife and Shane Gillis might not be universally beloved by comedy critics, but they’re very popular with Netflix subscribers. Despite coming out late in the year, Rife’s November release Natural Selection generated 12.7 million views, making it one of the year’s biggest comedy specials on the streamer, while Gillis’s Beautiful Dogs wasn’t too far behind, with 12 million views (though, since it came out September 5, it had more time to build an audience). Tom Segura’s Sledgehammer, released in July, was another comedy over-performer, generating 11.8 million views.

But in another example of how much timing matters when looking at Netflix’s engagement report, consider the performance of Dave Chappelle’s last special, The Dreamer. It dropped on the very last day of 2023, giving it very little time to generate views that count toward the semi-annual rankings. It nonetheless managed a solid 2.2 million views during that 24-hour frame. But per Netflix’s weekly top-ten lists, the special would go on to amass at least 12.8 million more views during its first two full weeks on the platform, for a total of at least 15 million views — bigger than the specials from Rife and Gillis. Those numbers might explain why Netflix execs keep making deals with Chapelle, despite his fondness for making anti-trans remarks during his sets.

The sixth and final season of The Crown did not go out with a bang: It generated a modest 25.2 million views in Netflix’s new engagement report, which is slightly less than season one of Young Sheldon (26.1 million) generated, despite not being available in every Netflix territory and it not landing on Netflix U.S. until late November (it had been on the platform in smaller countries before then). To be fair, The Crown released its final season in two batches, giving its final episodes just a few weeks to amass eyeballs. But the show also disappeared from Netflix’s global top ten by early January 2024, hinting the show didn’t exactly stay on fire once the window for this engagement report closed. No doubt there will be a long tail for The Crown as some viewers finally catch up and some die-hard royalists rewatch. But the intensity of audience interest that greeted past seasons of the show definitely seemed to cool as things wrapped up.

In a sign that people really, really love Wednesday, the fall 2022 release generated a total of 98.4 million views in 2023 — including 23.9 million views just in the second half of the year. Needless to say, that’s a bigger audience than 90 percent of Netflix’s original scripted series, including ones which actually premiered during the last six months of 2023. Case in point: Big Mouth, which in its early years felt like one of the hottest shows on Netflix, amassed a surprisingly small 8.5 million views for its seventh season, which dropped in October. The fact that year-old episodes of Wednesday drew three times as many views as brand-new installments of Big Mouth probably explains why the latter show will debut its final season next year.

What’s on Netflix has helpfully added up viewing data from both of Netflix’s 2023 engagement reports, allowing for a better look at how titles performed for the full year. And while Leave the World Behind remains popular no matter how you look at it, it’s clear that for Netflix, J.Lo really is mother: Her May 2023 release The Mother ended up generating a phenomenal 153.7 million views for the full year (25.5 million of which came in the second half of 2023), making it the biggest title on the streamer last year. It was followed by Extraction 2 (151.7 million) and Murder Mystery 2 (129.7 million) as the most popular movies for all of 2023.

But once again, the weirdness of how Netflix releases data means you need to be careful in drawing conclusions about a title’s overall popularity. While Mother was the No. 1 movie of 2023 for Netflix, lots of people waited until January (or later) to catch Leave the World Behind, allowing it to eventually pass Mother on Netflix’s top-ten movies of all time list.

In terms of series, while One Piece ruled the second half of 2023, it pales next to several other releases from earlier in the year. The Night Agent, for example, snagged 99.2 million views last spring, then tacked on another 19 million last summer and fall for an annual total of 118.2 million views — by far Netflix’s biggest series last year. It’s followed by Wednesday (98.4 million for the year) and Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story (89.6 million). One Piece is certainly still generating views, of course, and its tally will jump once the next engagement report comes out. But it’s unlikely to catch Night Agent or even Wednesday.

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