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Tina Fey and other Netflix talent weigh in on working in a ratings-free zone

Tina Fey and other Netflix talent weigh in on working in a ratings-free zone
Creator/executive producer Tina Fey speaks onstage during the "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" panel discussion at the Netflix portion of the 2015 Summer TCA Tour at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on July 28. (Getty Images)

It's locked up more securely than the ladies at Litchfield Penitentiary in "Orange Is the New Black": It's Netflix's viewership data.

And during the video streaming site's full day of panels Tuesday at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Beverly Hills, it was the hot topic of discussion.

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When a reporter tried to get Netflix executive Ted Sarandos to at least reveal which of the streaming service's original series is the most watched, Sarandos' answer was in keeping with Netflix's tight-lipped nature.

"The reason we don't line them against one another is it's not the intent to draw the biggest audience from any single show," Sarandos said, later singling out the cultural chatter surrounding "Orange Is the New Black," "House of Cards" and "Daredevil."

He added: "None of those shows are designed for or built to attract the entire 65 million subscriber base to watch. "

The Los Gatos-based company, which boasts a 42.3 million subscribers in the U.S. and 23.2 million internationally, is notorious for not revealing viewing stats for its original series. And streaming services like Netflix and Amazon are not measured by Nielsen's people meters.

It's a matter that has been a point of contention among its linear competitors since the video streaming leader entered the originals market three years ago.

HBO Chairman and Chief Executive Richard Plepler called the move "curious" at a 2013 TCA appearance.

"We've always released our ratings and quite frankly it's a fair metric," Plepler said then. "The rationale appears to be that they're not in the advertising business. But all three of the premium networks release their ratings. Curious is exactly the right word, but it's not our business, it's their business."

FX Networks president John Landgraf, also during a 2013 TCA appearance, took umbrage at the approach.

"To say that 20 million users sampled something tells me nothing," Landgraf said of the streaming service, which then boasted 28 million subscribers in the U.S. "They may have watched 30 seconds of it," Landgraf told media reporters on Saturday morning.

"They have more data than we do," said Landgraf. "They can absolutely release data to you that allows for an apples to apples comparison."

To be sure, traditional linear networks have bit by bit amended their ratings approach to downplay the erosion in key demographics that has hit the TV industry.

Many networks now opt to present a more complete picture that accounts for time-shifted viewing and viewing across multiple platforms (including VOD-playback and streaming on websites/apps).

For the executive producers behind Netflix's roster or originals, being unshackled from all that is a welcome respite.

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Tina Fey, co-creator and executive producer of "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," is all too aware of the weight next-day ratings can hold over a show's future from her time doing NBC's modestly-viewed comedy "30 Rock." So to be less bound to ratings points is a nice change of pace. And she insists she doesn't know how many people are watching.

"We know that Ted is pleased, which is great news, but we don't have any actual numbers," she told reporters. "I feel  anecdotally, I feel like I immediately heard from so many more people than we would hear from during '30 Rock.  I feel like a lot of people are watching ['Unbreakable'] ... But, yes, it's very free to be free of that rating system, for sure."

Stephen DeKnight, who served as the showrunner on the first season of "Marvel's Daredevil," later echoed those sentiments:

"It's so liberating not having to to worry about the numbers," said DeKnight, whose other TV credits include Starz's since-ended "Spartacus" and "Smallville."

Meanwhile, "Grace and Frankie" executive producer Marta Kauffman addressed potential compensation side effects that could arise without a barometer of success, particularly for actors during contract negotiations.

Kauffman was behind the NBC juggernaut "Friends," whose cast underwent intense contract negotiations with the network and Warner Bros. Television ahead of its seventh season. It would be a deal that significantly underscored the comedy's value, which was largely linked to the boffo ratings that pleased its advertisers. By the end of the show's 10-season run, the cast was making $1 million per episode.

"It's such a different situation," Kauffman said. "The ratings are connected to advertisers, and that was the case, where the cast knew how valuable the show was to the network in terms of the advertisers.  There are no advertisers on Netflix."

"And I think you're hoping that I'll say it's frustrating," she continued, "but the truth is, it's wonderful, because there's only one thing we're doing.  We're not pandering to advertisers.  We're not pandering to a network.  All we're doing is making the show we want and that we believe in.  If someday the cast says, 'We're worth more than you're offering,' then we'll deal with it then."

I tweet about TV (and other things) here: @villarrealy

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