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Netflix says ‘Murder Mystery’ was its most ‘popular’ 2019 release. That doesn’t mean what you think

Murder Mystery
‘Murder Mystery’ stars Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler.
(Scott Yamano / Netflix)

When many people think of Netflix in 2019, especially during awards season, they probably think of movies like “The Irishman” and “Marriage Story” — prestigious titles with inescapable “for your consideration” ads, ecstatic reviews and social media chatter. Or they might think of shows such as “Stranger Things” and “Russian Doll.”

But according to a new ranking from Netflix, the most popular title of the year for the streaming giant’s U.S. viewers was something completely different: the not-so-well-reviewed Adam Sandler-Jennifer Aniston crime comedy film “Murder Mystery.”

Surprised?

Before going any further, it’s important to define what Netflix means by “popular,” because the company has long been known for coyness when it comes to releasing viewership data for the shows and movies on its service.

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The Los Gatos-based firm has only recently begun releasing data for how many people are watching some of its originals. And even those numbers are of limited use because they lack the context a third-party data firm could provide, such as comparisons to traditional TV viewership and shows on rival services. In the time it takes to parse what Netflix’s data actually means, one could watch a decent chunk of Martin Scorsese’s latest mob epic.

For its New Year’s top 10 lists, Netflix calculated popularity based on how many people watched at least two minutes of a piece of content in its first 28 days of release, according to a person familiar with the methodology.

Yes, two minutes. That’s not a typo. If someone clicked on a “Stranger Things” episode because it was featured on the homepage and got about as far as the opening credits, that counts for Netflix’s popularity roundup. Think how YouTube counts views based on how many people start watching a video, not by how many finish.

This is different from how Netflix generally determines viewership. With its movies, for example, it’s a view if the person gets through 70% of the run time. Netflix earlier this year said 73 million households watched “Murder Mystery” in its first four weeks. This month, Netflix said “The Irishman” was watched by more than 26.4 million households in its first week.

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So Netflix’s latest rankings don’t provide a reliable measure of success for its programming. But caveats aside, the list provides some interesting factoids, other than the ascendance of “Murder Mystery.”

Sci-fi series “Stranger Things” is second on the popularity index for its third season on Netflix, according to the company. Third place goes to another Netflix original, the Michael Bay action film “6 Underground,” which was released on the service this month. (The movie hasn’t been out for 28 days yet, so its ranking is based on a projection. The same goes for other recent releases.)

However, in fourth place sits Pixar’s “Incredibles 2,” which was released by its now biggest rival, Walt Disney Co. On Netflix’s separate list of popular movies, “Incredibles 2" ranks third, while Disney’s “Ralph Breaks the Internet” came in at No. 9. That’s interesting in part because Disney is shifting its streaming strategy to put its movies on its well-publicized new service Disney+ instead of Netflix. The rankings show family content is a popular draw for Netflix, particularly when it comes from Disney.

One surprise on the service’s TV list: The final season of its acclaimed “Orange is the New Black” is nowhere to to found.

Here’s the company’s ranking of the most popular releases on its platform in the last year.

Overall

  1. Murder Mystery
  2. Stranger Things 3
  3. 6 Underground
  4. Incredibles 2
  5. The Irishman
  6. The Witcher
  7. Triple Frontier
  8. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
  9. The Umbrella Academy
  10. The Highwaymen

Shows

  1. Stranger Things 3
  2. The Witcher
  3. The Umbrella Academy
  4. Dead to Me
  5. You: Season 2
  6. When They See Us
  7. Unbelievable
  8. Sex Education
  9. 13 Reasons Why
  10. Raising Dion

Movies

  1. Murder Mystery
  2. 6 Underground
  3. The Incredibles 2
  4. The Irishman
  5. Triple Frontier
  6. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
  7. The Highwaymen
  8. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
  9. Ralph Breaks the Internet
  10. Secret Obsession

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