Netflix is showing off a bit more than it used to.
Netflix's earnings were a mixed bag overall, with shares falling about 4% after hours on news that it beat estimates on EPS and new subscribers, but fell short on revenue, reporting $4.19 billion versus a $4.21 billion consensus estimate for the fourth quarter. Shares of Netflix ended Friday down 3.99% to $339 a share.
Netflix is RealMoney's stock of the day -- see trader Sarge Guilfoyle's take on Netflix shares.
Netflix typically doesn't focus much on how many of its 139 million paid subscribers are watching specific shows. But in its fourth-quarter results, the streaming giant revealed that Bird Box, the buzzy thriller starring Sandra Bullock, was seen by 80 million households within four weeks of its release; meanwhile, Sex Education and You, both dramas geared at a young adult audience, are on track to reach 40 million households apiece in the same time frame.
So why disclose more viewership metrics now? In an earnings interview following the release, Netflix's content chief Ted Sarandos described them as "less financial metrics than they are cultural metrics," pointing to the relevance of Netflix's most popular content in popular culture: "What's important is that for your Netflix subscription, you're part of the zeitgeist," Sarandos said.
Being "part of the zeitgeist" also happens to be a key part of Netflix's growth strategy, with the strength of its original programming viewed as closely linked with new subscriber growth. But the viewership numbers also served as a call-out to content producers, with Sarandos adding that "it's important for artists to understand the size and reach of their work."
With rivals such as Apple (AAPL - Get Report) , Time Warner (T - Get Report) and Disney (DIS - Get Report) planning streaming services, that could be a consequential message as competition for top quality content increases. Notably, however, CEO Reed Hastings appeared dismissive of threats from Disney and other potential competitors.
"We compete so broadly with all of these different providers, that any one provider entering only makes a difference on the margins," Hastings said in the interview.
According to Wedbush's Michael Pachter, the viewership numbers relay another point that has little to do with the appeal of the content itself.
"I think that without context, these numbers are largely irrelevant. However, they provided some context (You got 40 million views and Sex Education also 40 million). I suppose that is really impressive, until you read the footnote, which says that 70% of one episode counts," he said. "That says to me that the high viewership reflects the power of their recommendation engine, which forces You on to the home screen once you open up the app. That's a Lifetime series about a stalker, which has zero appeal to me, but like Bird Box and Bright, it's been on my screen every time I log in. I'm sure that they are phenomenally successful at getting people to try shows."
Financing and distributing popular content doesn't come cheap, and Netflix executives forewarned investors on Thursday that content spending will grow in 2019 alongside improving free cash flow and margins, an effect they describe as a virtuous cycle.
Still, more information about how Netflix's content is performing is undoubtedly welcomed by many.
"More transparency is important and desirable, so I'm hopeful we get a lot more data on viewership of their other shows going forward," Pachter added.