I’m going to try to convince you that you should care about exactly how many people watched the moral panic-inducing hit Netflix series Squid Game. Yes, I know there’s a lot going on in the world. But bear with me: I think this really matters regarding how we understand our culture – and the balance of power in a media business where data is king.
(As a treat, if you stick with this newsletter then further down I’ll tell you about some of the biggest flops that Netflix would prefer you didn’t know about.)
In the past it was simple to find out how many people watched a popular television show. Audience figures for traditional television broadcasts have been produced in a similar way for decades. Research companies recruit a group of households considered to be statistically representative of the general population (in the UK this is done by Barb, in the US by Nielsen) and then their viewing habits are monitored, often using a box attached to their television set.
This data is then processed and used to produce industry-standard television ratings that can make or break careers. Journalists love these figures because you can make narratives out of them! It’s why you see headlines in news outlets about how half of the UK watched a football match, or how no one watched a new rightwing news channel.
These figures are made public, in part, because commercial television channels have advertisers. And advertisers need to know their adverts are actually being watched, so they need reliable and trustworthy numbers produced by a third-party organisation. Sure, this survey system is flawed, but broadly speaking it is equally flawed for everyone. You can tell if a programme on BBC is much more popular than a show on ITV, and you can tell if a particular drama massively outperformed what you’d expect.
Then Netflix and subscription streaming services came along. They don’t have advertisers. Their aim is to hook, retain, and encourage customers to keep using their service until it becomes so ingrained in their lives that they can never stop paying their monthly subscription fee. Core to working out how to do this is the data they collect on you.
Because Netflix knows exactly what shows you watch. They know how many seconds you lasted with each programme, when you got bored, what you put on instead when you got bored, and exactly what time of night you were watching that smutty foreign series. And it’s really not in Netflix’s interest to share this information with journalists, their rivals, or with the people who make the shows.
Which brings us back to the original question: How many people watched Squid Game? And why does it matter?
Well, if you believe Netflix, who occasionally drip-feed out positive ratings stories when it suits them, by last night Squid Game had been watched by 142 million households, making it one of the biggest hits ever.
But we’ve only got Netflix’s word to go on for that figure. And even then, Netflix currently defines a viewer as someone who watched the first two minutes of a show’s opening episode. Did you put Squid Game on for a few minutes to check out the hype then get bored? Well, you might be surprised to find you’re counted to be just as much a “fan” of the show as someone who watched all nine episodes back-to-back.
Journalistically, it’s a challenge. We end up having to accept Netflix’s word for the figures they provide because there’s simply no other option. It also enables the streaming outlets to selectively publish the narrative that they want to construct. It’s sexy and cool to trumpet your investment in high-end original drama. (And hell, Netflix really is investing incredible sums in high-end original drama!) It’s less sexy to admit that your critically acclaimed show was a ratings flop and people just want to watch endless repeats of Grand Designs.
What’s more, it warps our perceptions of audiences and what is popular in culture. Is a Netflix drama more popular than a BBC drama? Possibly. This may have enormous implications for the future of whether we still need the licence fee. Does the public really engage with Oscar-nominated state-of-the-nation films or secretly sit there watching another Adam Sandler release? With the culture wars grinding on, it’s probably worth knowing. What are the truly unifying television moments that bind a society together? It’s hard to be sure. Because we can’t get the data out of Netflix.
The truth is out there
Except … one small family business based in Bristol has worked out how to do just that. The staff at Digital i, an analytics firm, realised that while Netflix won’t release viewing figures, it does release data to members of the public about their personal viewing history.
(It’s true, you can see an overview of your recent Netflix viewing history, or you can download every bit of data that Netflix holds on you by visiting this link. In my case, it reveals that I was really binge-watching an awful lot of episodes of The Good Wife in 2015.)
Digital i realised that if they could convince thousands individuals to willingly hand over this personal viewing history in return for a small payment, the company can effectively create a statistically rigorous survey panel, then use this to create audience “ratings” for Netflix shows and sell this data to rivals. At the moment they have users signed up in five major European countries but they hope to expand globally.
“We’re trying to level the playing field for Netflix competitors,” said Sophia Vahdati from the company, who says their customers include the likes of BBC and ITV.
Her company has shone a light on one of Netflix’s biggest secret: how much of their audience is viewing endless repeats of old shows, because people binge high-profile original series in such a short period of time.
“The biggest thing that isn’t mentioned in the hype is how important sitcoms are to retaining Netflix subscribers,” she said, highlighting the availability of Brooklyn 99 and Big Bang Theory as just as core to Netflix’s offering as their buzzy acclaimed shows.
Here’s some of the findings of their Digital i’s data from its UK audience research that she shared with the Guardian:
British Netflix users spent more time watching old episodes of Friends in 2020 than watching big-budget original series the Crown.
The three most popular new releases in the UK during August were Clickbait (watched by 2.34m Netflix accounts), Hit & Run (2.1m households), and The Chair (1.64m). These are high ratings but Channel 5 can top them.
Sex Education Series 3 was released on the same day as Squid Game and performed just as well in Europe – but has had a fraction of the hype.
Shows such Bridgerton, Afterlife and The Queen’s Gambit were all hitting over 80% completion rates in the UK – meaning people were hooked and watched to the end of each series.
At the other end of the market, the five shows with the worst series completion rates were The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (just 35% of viewers finished it), What/If (45%), The Irregulars (53%), White Lines (56%), and Sex/Life (56%) – which explains why most of them were cancelled.
Any film that is watched to the end by 70% of people is a success. Martin Scorsese’s big-budget much-hyped Irishman? That struggled, on their metrics.
People now watch original series in a very short space of time – about a quarter of people who watched Squid Game finished it within two days.
Even though Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are not far apart in terms of signed-up users, Netflix dwarfs Amazon when it comes to people actually watching their content.
Oh and almost no one chooses to watch the credits nowadays. Sorry to everyone who made the programmes, we’ve already autoplayed the next episode.
So why does all this matter?
A lack of transparency changes the balance of of power when it comes to small companies negotiating with a global giant such as Netflix.
One independent producer who sold a film to Netflix suspects their release performed well, based on online reaction. But they told me that they just don’t know: “Netflix doesn’t usually give producers information about viewing figures of films they made – which is both frustrating and very disempowering for producers trying to negotiate funding for the next one, with them or anyone else.”
And for Squid Game? Digital i reckons 79% of Europeans with Netflix on their research panel watched at least one episode within the first fortnight of its release – with half making it all the way to the end in that time. So it really is a massive hit. Just perhaps not quite as big as Netflix’s own figures would suggest.
Last night, the streaming company announced that they would slightly change the metrics they use and drop the “two minutes watched” measure in favour of total hours watched. But it’s still in the company’s gift when they make the information public.
Vahdati says her company’s data shows how the streamer can selectively release data to shape the narrative about their output: “The originals are punchy, sharp and aesthetically innovative. But at the heart of it we haven’t become a nation who like to be challenged all the time with foreign-language dramas.”
Oh – and if you’re one of the many Squid Game viewers, then no spoilers please. I’m still only two episodes in.
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As 2020 drew to a close, Scott Morrison may have looked towards 2021 with a sense of optimism. But Covid-19 had other ideas, and Australia’s attention was soon fixed upon combating the deadly new Delta strain. This year has been marked by multi-state lockdowns, border closures and a fraught vaccination rollout, leaving the population exhausted. But as Australia nervously enters a new phase of normalcy (Omicron-permitting), there remain policy issues on the other side of the roadmap that demand attention.
Boosting educational standards, reconciling our history with our First Nations people and our unhealthy reliance on a small handful of big tech firms areon the government’s priority list. Other issues, including conserving Australia’s environment, and addressing poverty and entrenched economic inequality, are worthy of any vision to “build back better”.
These books tackle these big issues and provide constructive ideas for the road ahead.
On Money, by Rick Morton
Rick Morton has carved out an impressive career in an industry that he describes as an elite cultural institution. Having grown up in poverty, Morton knows first-hand that the entry price for opportunity is not equal for everyone. For some like Morton – who grew up with nothing and had nothing to fall back on – every day is a fight for survival, and he describes the “cognitive tax” that this imposes on the nation’s poorest. Often one financial mishap, traumatic event or bad decision can kickstart a lifetime of cascading consequences; a reality that isn’t always understood by those born with privilege, who are afforded the “time and space” that money provides.
These consequences, Morton explains, place heavy burdens on tired bodies and on impoverished brains. He writes fondly of his weary mother who, having spent a life doing constant mental arithmetic, of “lifting and scraping and effort, effort, effort”, is old beyond her 60 years. Extrapolate this weariness across the 700,000 Australians that the Productivity Commission estimates live in persistent disadvantage and it’s clear that the lifelong physical and mental health costs of economic inequality demand urgent intervention.
Morton identifies the tangle of welfare systems and institutions, of political pledges and punishments, that has created an environment where attitudes towards people living in poverty have shifted towards using money as a measure of moral character and worth.
On Money meticulously describes the implications of financial hardship and the policies that exacerbate it through the eyes of someone who has lived it. It’s a piercing and personal piece, a deeper look at how his experiences as a child (recounted in his brilliant memoir One Hundred Years of Dirt) shaped his relationship with money. It perfectly explores how a life spent choosing from a “restricted buffet” can cause damage across generations.
Rick Morton is a national treasure and On Money is a shining gem of insight into systemic inequality. We are all richer for his work.
She Is Haunted, by Paige Clark
Allen & Unwin
Melbourne’s Paige Clark has burst on to the literary scene with her debut collection of 18 short stories. She Is Haunted is an ethereal work that deftly explores relationships, loss and grief. Clark, who is third-generation Chinese American and first-generation Australian, weaves her own experience of the transnational identity via excruciatingly relatable characters. Each story is written with a piercing dry wit, entwined with pathos-laden gut punches. Most of Clark’s protagonists are women, and in a year when the voices of Australian women were given prominence, She Is Haunted is a timely, refreshing and deeply intimate experience.
Clark’s writing is spare but her attention to the minutiae of life is evocative. She has interwoven the mystical and the mundane, depicting the surreal and the ordinary throughout the lives of her characters, who are all fallible but mostly sympathetic. A widowed woman self-soothes with clothes left behind, transforming physically into her late husband to avoid grieving his loss. A Woman in Love is split from her beloved and elderly dog after her marriage ends. High-jinks ensue as she embarks on a “dog-napping” escapade so she can clone the toothless chihuahua, but we are privy to a past of devastating genetic testing results and the comfort the dog brought. A woman and her partner voluntarily undergo removal of their left frontal cortex to withstand oppressive heat wrought by a heating planet: indeed, menacing hints of climate change stalk many of Clark’s stories.
She Is Haunted is a like a cosmic prism through which readers can view life and death. Spirits and the spiritual haunt carefully crafted vignettes, windows into souls that are grieving, bargaining, lost, jealous. While loss and death are constant throughout the book, Clark’s nimble prose keeps readers curious, with surprising deviations crafted within each chapter.
Paige Clark has created a dazzling debut. We look forward to what’s in store from this talented young Australian author.
System Error: Where Big Tech Went Wrong and How We Can Reboot, by Rob Reich, Mehran Sahami and Jeremy Weinstein
It’s been a big year for big tech. While negotiating new media laws, Facebook banned Australian news sites, the ban reaching well beyond news to government and not-for-profit pages. Anti-vaxxers used the internet to spread health misinformation. And the world was confronted with the terrifying power of social media used to mobilise the attack on the US Capitol building.
Considering these incidents, governments around the world face a significant challenge: how to regulate an industry that runs faster than the rules can be made.
While many books have tried to capture the sisyphean task facing policymakers in regulating big tech, few have succeeded as well as System Error.
The three authors outline how the often-libertarian beliefs of technology professionals lead to unregulated technology markets that come into conflict with democratic ideals. Many of these issues stem from an optimisation mindset, built into computer programmers and the startup elite at university. Technologists see their job as solving the problem in the most efficient way. But siloed development means no one’s asking if it’s a problem worth solving, let alone if there are negative side-effects.
Where some books take a “democracy good, big tech bad” approach, it’s the nuance and complexity of System Error that holds it above other offerings. The book explores the all-pervasive nature of big tech that touches every aspect of the democratic process. Lobbying against privacy and media laws, the impact of the gig economy and the increasing monopolies of the big five are just some examples given here. But the book also shares the lessons big tech can teach governments about agility in times of crisis – including how to make a Covid-tracing app that people might use.
Although System Error is written from a US perspective, the book highlights the need for a global approach to regulating big tech. After all, these companies may be based in the US but their effects are felt worldwide.
Australia might be well placed to test some of the recommendations, as a middle-power, English-speaking country relying on globalisation. In fact, Australia’s media content laws trying to extract revenue from Google and Facebook are exactly that, on a small scale. The authors also point out that few policymakers have technological backgrounds. As a starting point, Australia needs more digital experts in parliament and the public service.
A book on technological policy might sound like a dry read: this one’s not. The authors spin a compelling argument that has implications for all of us. You might think twice the next time you click “like”.
The School, by Brendan James Murray
In the opening lines of The School, Brendan James Murray observes: “Schools are haunted. Ghost children flitter and lurk and whisper … no latest initiative, no departmental ‘best practice’ will exorcise them.”
Politicians and policymakers talk a lot about schools but how well do most of us know what goes on inside them? Are we brave enough to look beyond the facade to the tangled web of social expectations, bureaucratic improvement plans and complicated human currents that course through the classrooms and corridors, spilling out into the playground?
The School is a powerful story about a notional year in the life of a teacher. Murray draws on his experience as an English and literature teacher at “The School”, a modest suburban secondary school on the edge of Port Phillip Bay, where he happened to spend his own days as a student.
As Murray warns us at the outset: “You will find these pages cluttered with souls jostling for your attention. That is the reality of teaching.” These souls are vividly rendered, their voices urgent.
Murray writes compellingly about the burden of obligation – and the genuine gratitude – he feels towards his students, and the excitement of shepherding them towards new understandings. Nobody could read this account without reflecting on how profound an impact a good teacher can have on the lives of students.
But this is no sentimental yarn. Murray reveals his frustration at the lack of resources at The School to tackle sometimes shocking levels of adolescent illiteracy, the heavy toll on young lives of poor physical and mental health, the radiating legacy of family trauma, the ease with which social cruelty and physical violence can be inflicted in the schoolyard, and the seeming indifference of a small handful of colleagues.
But Murray resists the temptation to lay blame at the feet of the usual cast of villains: cynical politicians, heartless bureaucrats, neglectful parents, a few bad teachers or troubled students. It is refreshing to read an account that acknowledges that these challenges are difficult and defy simple explanation.
It is impossible to read this book without feeling a deep sense of obligation – and motivation – to keep asking what more, or what else, can we do to honour the ghost children who walk the grounds of The School.
Truth-Telling, by Henry Reynolds
The Uluru statement from the heart speaks with the powerfully united voice of First Nations Australians and calls on all Australians to tell the truth about our history.
It is nearly 250 years since the arrival of the British, and yet in many ways we are still resisting the truth of our past.
In his new bookHenry Reynolds makes an important contribution to this truth-telling process, drawing on his long career as an Australian historian.
The book is a piece of revisionist history that begins in 1788, and carefully steps through the legal concepts of sovereignty and property law within the context of the international law at the time, laying bare how the “scale of the expropriation was without precedent”.
Reynolds presents a wealth of evidence, including letters from the colonial office in London – which oversaw the colonial affairs of Britain – that demonstrates how the colonists’ violence and legal overreach went beyond what even the colonial office deemed acceptable.
Documents show that the British government had acknowledged that First Nations Australians were proprietors. Yet this did not stop the land theft by colonists in Australia.
Britain claimed the benefits of the sovereignty it asserted over the land, first in New South Wales, “which would have been found illegitimate in international law”. But the British did not always uphold their responsibility that came with that – which was to provide protection from harm to all sovereign subjects, including Indigenous Australians.
Instead, Reynolds argues that the British “turned their back on the tradition of treaty-making fully conscious of what they were doing”. The British government had created a situation where “tension could only be relieved by violence”.
A common refrain about Australia’s past is that colonisation, while brutal, “was acceptable behaviour at the time”. Truth-Telling demands that Australians face up to the real truth of our past. Only then can we genuinely engage with the Uluru statement from the heart and move forward firmly and constructively.
The Winter Road, by Kate Holden
Black Inc Books
On a stretch of dirt road in outback NSW, 78-year-old farmer Ian Turnbull raised his hunting rifle and aimed. The first shot knocked Glen Turner, a state environmental officer, to one knee.
As dusk fell on Croppa Creek, Turner and his workmate dived behind their ute, pleading with Turnbull to no avail. In desperation, Turner turned to run. Once more, a shot echoed over the cleared farmland, this time striking Turner in the back. “I’m going home to wait for the police,” the elderly farmer said as he stepped into his ute. He drove off, leaving Turner dead in the arms of his partner.
Australia’s history with our land – the clash between farmers wanting to clear and work it, and those seeking to preserve it – runs deep.
Equal parts crime and history, The Winter Road is a gripping tale of legacy, land and the killing at Croppa Creek.
Using the July 2014 murder of Glen Turner as a launching point, Kate Holden dives into the events that led to the shooting and the history that preceded it. The tension between Turner, a government official intent on enforcing environmental regulations, and Turnbull, a farmer who believes in the right to treat his property as he wishes, speaks to broad ideas of ownership and government, of exploitation and preservation.
The result is a meticulously researched look at the continuing tug of war between land ownership, inheritance, enforcement and preservation efforts in Australia. The Winter Road raises fundamental questions about the give-and-take relationship Australians have with the land – from First Nations ideals of continuity and preservation to European notions of taming the land through work. It highlights the complex nature of the laws that govern land and the dangers that those tasked with enforcing protection can face.
By deftly explaining the history behind invasion, settlement and the traditions of preservation and farming, Holden tells a uniquely Australian tale. It captures deep and difficult questions about exploitation of the land we live on, and how it relates to our history, laws and society.
The Apple iPhones of at least nine US State Department officials were compromised by an unidentified entity using NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, according to a report published Friday by Reuters.
NSO Group in an email to The Register said it has blocked an unnamed customers’ access to its system upon receiving an inquiry about the incident but has yet to confirm whether its software was involved.
“Once the inquiry was received, and before any investigation under our compliance policy, we have decided to immediately terminate relevant customers’ access to the system, due to the severity of the allegations,” an NSO spokesperson told The Register in an email. “To this point, we haven’t received any information nor the phone numbers, nor any indication that NSO’s tools were used in this case.”
The Israel-based company, recently sanctioned by the US for allegedly offering its intrusion software to repressive regimes and sued by both Apple and Meta’s (Facebook’s) WhatsApp for allegedly supporting the hacking their customers, says that it will cooperate with any relevant government authority and pass on what it learns from its investigation of the incident.
The spyware company insisted it is unaware of the targets designated by customers using its software.
“To clarify, the installation of our software by the customer occurs via phone numbers. As stated before, NSO’s technologies are blocked from working on US (+1) numbers,” NSO’s spokesperson said. “Once the software is sold to the licensed customer, NSO has no way to know who the targets of the customers are, as such, we were not and could not have been aware of this case.”
According to Reuters, affected State Department personnel were based in Uganda or were focused on matters related to that country and so had phone numbers with a foreign country prefix rather than the US prefix.
On November 23rd, when Apple announced its lawsuit against the NSO Group, the iPhone maker also said that it will notify iPhone customers targeted by state-sponsored hacking. That same day, Norbert Mao, a lawyer and President of the Democratic Party in Uganda, posted on Twitter that he’d received an Apple threat notification.
In June, the Washington Post reported that NSO’s Pegasus software was implicated in the attempted or successful hacking of 37 phones belonging to journalists and rights advocates, including two women close to murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The report said the findings undermined NSO Group’s claims that its software was only licensed for fighting terrorists and for law enforcement.
That same month, the NSO Group published its 2021 Transparency and Responsibility Report [PDF], in which the company insists its software is used exclusively for use against groups that have few allies like terrorists, criminals, and pedophiles.
“Myth: Pegasus is a mass surveillance tool,” the report says. “Fact: Data is collected only from individual, pre-identified suspected criminals and terrorists.”
A US State Department spokesperson declined The Register’s request to confirm the Reuters report but said the State Department takes its responsibility to safeguard its information seriously. We were also told that the Biden-Harris Administration is working to limit the use of digital tools of repression.
NSO Group maintains that it has turned away $300m in revenue to date based on unresolved human rights concerns and that, between May 2020 and April 2021, it rejected 15 per cent of new business opportunities for the same reason.
The company, which does not name its customers in its Transparency and Responsibility Report but includes numerous unattributed endorsement quotations about its products, has not yet published documents that allow its claims to be verified. ®
The 3D-printed implants were shown to speed up the healing of wounds and could be adapted to regenerate different tissues in the body.
A new study led by researchers at the RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences indicates that wound healing could be improved by replicating a key component of our blood.
Researchers focused on platelet-rich plasma (PRP), which is a natural healing substance in our blood. They extracted PRP from the blood of patients with complex skin wounds and manipulated the PRP through 3D-printing to create a tissue-repair implant.
This implant could be administered to a difficult-to-treat skin wound in a single surgical procedure.
Results suggested that the implant could help to speed up wound healing by improving the development of new blood vessels and inhibiting the formation of scarring, which are both essential for a wound to heal effectively.
This indicates an improvement over the PRP already present in our blood, according to Prof Fergal O’Brien of RCSI, as natural PRP helps wounds to heal but scarring can still occur.
“By 3D-printing PRP into a biomaterial scaffold, we can increase the formation of blood vessels while also avoiding the formation of scars, leading to more successful wound healing.”
O’Brien, who is professor of bioengineering and regenerative medicine at RCSI, believes there are applications for this technology beyond skin wounds.
“This technology can potentially be used to regenerate different tissues, therefore dramatically influencing the ever-growing regenerative medicine, 3D printing and personalised medicine markets.”
The study was led by researchers at the Tissue Engineering Research Group and Science Foundation Ireland’s Advanced Materials and Bioengineering Research Centre (AMBER), based at RCSI’s Department of Anatomy and Regenerative Medicine.
The team also collaborated with researchers at the University of Minho in Portugal and at Trinity College Dublin’s Centre for Biomedical Engineering.
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