When psychological thriller You first premiered on Lifetime, critics loved it. The first season of the series, which stars Gossip Girl’s Penn Badgley as a dangerous and unsettlingly alluring stalker, was Certified Fresh at 93 percent on the Tomatometer. But to the general public, You might as well have been called Who?
About a month after the season finale in November, You became available to stream on Netflix — and suddenly became a sensation. While the New York Times reported that the initial Lifetime run drew in about 650,000 viewers per episode, Netflix claimed that 40 million people were on track to have streamed You in its first four weeks on the service. It’s a drastic reminder of the new role that streaming plays in the modern television world, with streamers like Netflix (and to a lesser degree, Hulu and Amazon) operating as some combination of kingmaker, life-support, and necromancer.
“I don’t really know how to wrap my head around 40 million viewers in the first month,” You showrunner Sera Gamble told Rotten Tomatoes. “Lifetime believed in the show and were supportive creative partners while we were making the first season. So it was exciting when the show first aired, then sad that the show couldn’t continue on that network, then straight-up surreal when it went to Netflix and caught on.”
Gamble stressed that it wasn’t that Lifetime didn’t do right by You, but rather that times and viewer habits were changing in a way that gives streaming platforms a huge amount of influence.
“It didn’t feel like we were being snubbed, it just felt like we were on a cable network during this strange time where technology shifts how viewers, especially younger ones, consume content,” she said.
You’s sophomore season will premiere on Netflix as a newly minted Netflix original (although the first season aired as an original on Netflix outside of the U.S., as is fairly common with international licensing deals). It’s hardly the first time that streaming has given a traditionally televised show a new lease on life, but a show doesn’t need to be saved from cancellation and reborn as a streaming original to enjoy the benefits of streaming.
“Netflix gave the first season of The Magicians a big bump, and as a viewer, there are shows I caught up with [on Netflix] a couple of seasons in,” says Gamble, who also is executive producer, co-showrunner, and co-creator with John McNamara for the Syfy series, which recently saw its fourth season Certified Fresh at 100% on the Tomatometer (a rare achievement).
The series’ actors report that they notice the bump offline in real life.
“I noticed we were getting more viewership last year when I would just be walking down the street, because people would start looking at me, and I’d be like, OK—” Summer Bishil, who plays Margo in the series, told Rotten Tomatoes during a set visit in the fall. “I’ve been working since I was like 17, and I’ve never been recognized or anything like that … But I’m like, OK, I’ve either become a supermodel overnight, or people are watching The Magicians.”
Netflix calls the bump “The Netflix Effect,” a spokesperson told Rotten Tomatoes. The phenomenon, however, is not exclusive to Netflix, of course. It makes sense that a streaming service could bring new eyeballs to a show, since Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon’s algorithms are very good at showing audiences what they might enjoy (and might’ve missed during its initial airing). Netflix especially is so ubiquitous that it acts as a home page of sorts for many viewers, especially those without traditional TVs or cable. If Netflix prominently suggests a recently licensed show on the landing page, magnitudes more people will see it and consider hitting play compared to normal TV, where viewers need to actively seek out a show to watch it live.
Netflix declined to elaborate on how widespread the bump is aside from providing data about You’s landmark success.
Hulu has noticed a similar bump, with a representative from the streamer’s content acquisitions team telling Rotten Tomatoes that they have noticed licensed shows build momentum on Hulu. The representative also identified what they supposed could be called “The Hulu Effect”: Since episodes of many currently airing shows are added to Hulu’s library a day after they first air, Hulu has noted that viewers will use the site as a resource to get caught up while a season is still ongoing. Netflix, meanwhile, only adds completed seasons to its streaming library.
With the exception of You, neither Hulu nor Netflix offered specific data about exactly how big any streaming second-life bump was. Netflix in particular is a black box when it comes to releasing viewership numbers, and other industry professionals tend to take the streamer’s vague boasts with a grain of salt. As a rough proxy for this data, though, we can look at the percent increase in page views for a show’s Rotten Tomatoes page during its initial run compared to its streaming release. In most cases, it’s a noticeable increase, suggesting that many more people are looking up a show once it’s streaming. Presumably, more are watching as well.
For instance, the main Rotten Tomatoes page for You saw a 730 percent increase in page views in the month following the show’s Netflix premiere compared to the total number of page views it received in the time between its September 9, 2018, televised premiere and streaming debut on December 26 later in the year.
The Rotten Tomatoes page for Dirty John, an anthology series inspired by a true-crime podcast, saw a 382 percent increase in page views in the seven days after it debuted on Netflix compared to its first week after the initial premiere on Lifetime.
When sci-fi saga The Expanse’s third season hit Amazon Prime, the number of Rotten Tomatoes page views on its season 3 page in that first week equaled those seen in the week of the season’s original premiere on Syfy. It’s not a meteoric increase, but it is a sign that streaming availability led to renewed or new interest in the show, which Amazon rescued from cancellation this year and which will live on as an Amazon Prime Video original series when season 4 premieres later in 2019.
Page views on The Magicians’ season 1 page on Rotten Tomatoes increased almost 92% in the first seven days after it started streaming in December 2016 over the number of page views in the first seven days after it aired the same month a year before.
Another perspective: the dwindle before the bump, as with The Sinner. When season 1 of the anthology crime series started streaming on Netflix in July 2018, its season 1 page only saw 30 percent of the traffic that it experienced in the seven days after the first episode aired on USA Network; however, page views on the series’ season 1 page jumped over 1,000 percent in the first 30 days of its streaming second-life, compared to the 30 days before it hit Netflix.
When Showtime’s Shameless debuted on Netflix, it was a modest hit for the network, garnering an audience of a little less than 2 million viewers per week. And while that viewership has remained relatively steady over the subsequent half a decade — no small feat in a world where live audiences are continually shrinking — its arrival online (it debuted on Netflix around its sixth season) turned the show from a critically praised dramedy into a full-blown sensation.
“It was incredible how tangible it was,” Shameless star Cameron Monaghan told Rotten Tomatoes. “For the first [few] seasons, we would walk around in Chicago and every long once in a while someone would come and be like, ‘Hey.’ And then as soon as it came on Netflix, it became a thing where hundreds of people would come to our set. We would have to set up barricades for people to not be wandering into our scenes. They would wait outside of our hotel. Especially within the city of Chicago, who has so much pride for themselves, Netflix really allowed the show to have a platform and gain its audience almost overnight. That was incredible. For a show as strange and wild as it is, for it to reach the level of success that it has and the longevity that it has is extremely rare.”
A Showtime spokesperson notes that the series averaged over 5.5 million viewers across platforms since season 3 and then experienced a big jump in season 8.
Before You, the greatest example of the “Netflix Effect” was in the lead-up to Breaking Bad’s final season. The show was a small success on AMC, but it reached phenomenon status when newcomers were able to binge all the previous seasons in time to watch the final season live. Almost 6 million people watched the premiere of the second half of the final season, double the number that had tuned into the previous season premiere.
Times have changed since Breaking Bad; Netflix and other streamers are increasingly competing with broadcast television rather than simply augmenting it. Shows like The Magicians and Riverdale are seeing an uptick in live viewership that could be attributed to Netflix, but that success is hard to measure and inconsistent. Plus, streaming services are flooding their libraries with so much original content — Netflix originals now surpass acquired titles, according to one study — that it’s increasingly hard for any show to really break through the noise.
There’s no guarantee that success on streaming will convert to success on TV anymore, however, as NBC’s Good Girls learned in its second season, which premiered to disappointing ratings in early March — the worst-ever for an episode of the comedy even though the first season had become popular on Netflix. And as companies like Disney prepare to take all their titles away from other distributors and onto their own streaming service, Disney+, and Apple gets ready to announce details about its own big push into original content on Monday, the streaming second-life might itself experience a reincarnation.
For casual viewers, though, streamers are boon, bringing a great show they otherwise might have missed right to them on their own personalized TV-viewing schedule. And, while it’s hard to say exactly how You’s streaming success helped Lifetime, it’s certainly good news for Gamble — though she’s trying not to let the bigger platform change the show.
“Writing is fundamentally the same task whether you have an audience of 40 or 40 million,” she says. “But, I’m not gonna lie, having a show be called ‘a hit’ is a good excuse for cupcakes in the writers’ room.”