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How Noah Centineo epitomizes Netflix’s evolving approach to viewer data

As of Wednesday morning, Katie Couric didn’t know who Noah Centineo was.

When Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos dropped the name on stage — calling the actor “one of the biggest movie stars in the world” — at Vanity Fair’s New Establishment Summit, the veteran journalist and respected interviewer admitted she was not familiar with the name. But, she said, “I think some of my coworkers in their twenties” know of Centineo and the Netflix movie that propelled him to stardom, 2018’s “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.”

In this example, Sarandos was trying to make a larger point about Netflix’s place in the zeitgeist, the difficulties in quantifying success when the platform exists outside of the traditional entertainment model, and why the streaming service has broken its long tradition of playing its viewership close to the vest.

“Here’s the thing, the way that the internet has kind of fragmented audiences, you might be in the center of the bubble and you think your show is the biggest show on the planet, or you never heard of that show and it is the biggest show on the planet,” he told Couric on stage. “That happens now. That’s new in the last five years.”

On Centineo, a 23-year-old whose earlier credits included roles on “The Fosters” and “Austin & Ally,” Sarandos said, “he was a complete unknown a couple of years ago, and he is a massive star right now.”

“And like I said, if you’re not in that bubble, you don’t know that because the whole world doesn’t revolve around the movie that was number one in the box office,” he said.

Anymore.

The streamer’s disruption of the entertainment industry by extension means it has disrupted what’s deemed popular enough to breakthrough the entertainment clutter. (Sarandos, earlier in the conversation, expressed his qualms with the use of the word “disruption.”)

People are more likely to watch or sample what is popular, but when Netflix wasn’t sharing data, it was hard for viewers to know, Sarandos said.

“By not [releasing numbers] what was happening, is, I think, people were missing some of these kind of cultural moments,” he said. “One way that people choose things is popularity, and we were the denying people the use of that one tool to help discover new things.”

The numbers Netflix has shared — for example, that Sandra Bullock thriller “Bird Box” was viewed by more than 80 million member households in its first four weeks — have been met with massive skepticism, however.

While TV networks provide numbers collected from media research firm Nielsen and several firms track movie box office, Netflix has not indicated that its figures have been vetted by an independent outside source. (A Netflix spokesperson points out that when the company release these figures in quarterly results, “as a public company we are legally bound to give accurate figures or face penalties from the Securities and Exchange Commission.”)

There’s considerable confusion about Netflix data, because their measurement is different from traditional measurement.

Netflix says that if 70 percent of a movie or TV episode was watched in the four weeks following its debut, it is counted as a view.

Sarandos was not questioned on some of the finer points of Netflix methodology. But, he said, “we’ll be more and more transparent with those numbers.”

“We’re trying to figure out a way to make it useful,” he said.

CNN