Ryan Murphy Streamonomics & Rings vs. Thrones, Part II

The Rings of Power’s first two episodes amassed 1.25 billion minutes watched, or some 9.5 million completed views. Courtesy of Prime Video.
Julia Alexander
October 4, 2022

Hollywood has become obsessed with the streaming metrics for Amazon Prime’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power and HBO Max’s House of the Dragon—both the overall metrics and the inevitable desire to juxtapose the two series. After all, the numbers are presumed to be leading indicators for the sort of mega-expensive, high-stakes fantasy I.P. bets that pervade the post-Netflix-correction streaming era. Will the long term financial return merit the extraordinary upfront investment? Every studio executive in town is watching closely to figure it out. With the first season of both shows just past their midway marks, it feels like a good time to check in on the raw performance that Rings and Dragon are actually delivering. 

Nielsen reported last week that The Rings of Power’s first two episodes amassed 1.25 billion minutes watched, or some 9.5 million completed views, according to my calculations. (Amazon noted that the series “attracted more than 25 million viewers globally” on its first day.) That’s decidedly less than the combined 9.9 million viewers that Warner Bros. Discovery says tuned in for House of the Dragon across linear and HBO Max on a single night in the U.S. alone. Yet not only is Rings underperforming its biggest fantasy competitor, it is also only marginally surpassing less expensive content on the Prime platform. The third season of The Boys, for instance, logged 949 million minutes over its first three episodes when it debuted, and The Wheel of Time pulled 1.16 billion minutes over its first three episodes when it premiered. Even setting aside the $250 million that Amazon paid upfront for rights to the I.P., both were produced for a fraction of what The Rings of Power cost. 

As always with emerging industries, there are apples-to-bananas issues with comparing Rings to Dragon along a single dataset. To wit, the time period that Nielsen collected data (Aug. 29 through Sept. 4) means that viewership for The Rings of Power, which dropped two episodes, was counted for four solid days while House of the Dragon’s third episode only received a couple of hours of measurement. Moreover, because House of the Dragon also airs on linear TV, there are measured hours that don’t make it into Nielsen’s recap. Regardless, both inputs suggest that House of Dragon has out-rated Rings in ways that we can’t yet measure.

But it’s also crucial to examine other data points to paint a more complete picture—not just global viewing, which is frequently left out of these numbers, but also whether a series brings in new subscribers, or how likely a series is to retain them. As always, we have to rely on various proxies. House of the Dragon, for instance, maintained a much stronger presence on Google Trends between Aug. 30 and Oct. 3, averaging a score of 45 to The Rings of Power’s score of 5. 

We see similar data patterns at Parrot Analytics, where I’m director of strategy. While both shows are powerhouses, boasting respective demand scores of 30.5x (The Rings of Power) and 54.5x (House of the Dragon), the average demand of all series globally, House of the Dragon has consistently just edged out The Rings of Power in every single country. 

A few final data points: The Rings of Power over-indexes with millennial males (68 percent male, 37.7 percent millennial), and shares a lower affinity to Amazon’s overall Prime Video catalog, meaning that new customers coming in for The Rings of Power aren’t as well retained once the series ends, according to Parrot. (Note: This is just from a content perspective. I acknowledge that Amazon has a whole retail side to this equation.) House of the Dragon, meanwhile, has a very strong affinity score, meaning that audiences who come in for the series are more likely to stay once the series ends. Also, House of the Dragon’s audience is also more evenly split (43 percent female audience) and leans younger (40 percent between the ages of 24 and 30). 

I’ll leave the creative merits to the critics—the reviews are practically identical on Rotten Tomatoes—but based on all the public data available from first and third parties, House of the Dragon has been more successful than The Rings of Power. Neither is a slam dunk just yet, but of course both series are likely looking at multiple seasons to come. In fact, on some fundamental level, the two series’ impact won’t accurately be measured for years. Dragon is an extension of a recent cultural phenomenon. Rings is the first stab at an ambitious multi-season revival of a 70-year-old classic novel and a 20-year-old classic film franchise. We’re only at the beginning of Prime’s plans. It’s indeed possible that this season will one day serve as a retention tool for future Prime subscribers signing up to watch the latest installment ten years from now. 

Every executive that I have spoken to about The Rings of Power points back to the same statistic that will be key to see if the show is really “worth” what Amazon spent: decay. House of the Dragon has done a far better job of holding onto its audience week after week, but if Amazon can stave off high viewership and demand decay, then that big price tag—a whopping billion dollars when you include the production and marketing budgets alongside the cost to acquire the rights—may not hang over Amazon’s head like a sharp guillotine blade a couple of years from now. 

Ryan Murphy’s Serial Success

Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story is a big hit for Netflix, and an overdue win for Ryan Murphy, the veteran showrunner whose $300 million overall deal with the streamer was beginning to look like a cautionary tale for Hollywood. Since Dahmer’s release last week, the serial killer drama has become Netflix’s ninth most popular English speaking TV series, with just under 500 million hours viewed, according to Netflix. That means about 56 million households have streamed the limited series within two weeks. The series has also trended continuously within the app, dominated social media trends and Google search, and become its own slightly distasteful meme on TikTok. To provide even more context, Dahmer saw nearly twice the viewer demand of Murphy’s next-most watched Netflix series, Ratched, and more than three times the demand of his other Netflix original series, including The Politician, Hollywood, and The Andy Warhol Diaries

It’s a strong moment for Murphy, whose Netflix deal ends in 2023. But it also raises real questions about the financial logic of paying nine-figure sums for a hitmaker to recreate the sort of value Murphy brought to FX with the American Horror Story franchise. The economics of streaming have changed dramatically, of course, in the four years since Murphy started working with Netflix. Is the era of the mega-overall deal toast as companies cut costs, manage the recessionary headwinds, and look to scale their domestic and international subscriber base? Or is Murphy’s nearly-complete run at Netflix part of a larger story about to take place? 

Overall deals have always been an essential part of the TV landscape, even if few ever reached the nine-figure level of Netflix’s deals with Shonda Rhimes and Murphy, in 2017 and 2018, respectively, or WarnerMedia’s massive deal with J.J. Abrams’s Bad Robot in 2019. Back then, Netflix didn’t necessarily need its marquee showrunners to deliver huge numbers of new subscribers. Rather, the Murphy and Rhimes deals were part of a concentrated effort to demonstrate that Netflix could be a home to the type of creative talent being courted by the prestige cable players like HBO and Showtime, and provide more freedom than the broadcasters. Since Netflix originals are often tied to the platform for years and years, the idea was that a show could always find its audience down the line. And anyway, Netflix could rely on access to related library titles from its partners to keep viewers hooked: Murphy’s American Horror Story to complement Dahmer, as an example of how it could work, or pushing Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal after Rhimes’ Bridgerton

Since then, of course, some Netflix’s partners have become its competitors. Disney spent hundreds of millions of dollars clawing back shows like American Horror Story and the Marvel collection for Hulu and Disney+. Meanwhile, sub growth at Netflix plateaued and began to fall. In 2018, when Netflix announced its deal with Murphy, the company added just under 25 million subscribers and increased revenue by 36 percent to more than $11 billion. In its last quarter, Netflix lost 1 million subscribers. Increasing costs brought on by strong competition, slowing global subscriber rates, and higher churn in its most lucrative market have all made every penny count more than ever. Content is never a guaranteed bet, and it’s a fool’s task to try to scale on talent alone, but the financial reality and library overlap back in 2018 created different stakes for those big nine-figure deals. 

Overall deals aren’t going to disappear. This is an industry built on relationships, and on taking bets on those relationships. The reality is that it’s still a great time to be a creator, and the cost for working near exclusively with the top 1 percent is only going to get more expensive as Apple and Amazon continue their investments in the space. But the overall goal of those overall deals will be to create franchisable work, a steady rhythm of hits, and zeitgeist moments. Rhimes has given Netflix a potential franchise in Bridgerton, with room for real world experiences, podcasts, and video games—all in development or reportedly in development—to help expand Netflix’s business. Inventing Anna found its own cultural moment, right down to Halloween costumes. Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead spinoff, Army of Thieves, amassed 72.8 million completed views within its first 28 days, and led to a significant increase in Army of the Dead viewership, as reported by Netflix. 

But these sorts of deals are going to evolve. When Murphy, Rhimes, Kenya Barris, and others signed nine-figure deals, Netflix needed to prove it could be a home to showrunners. It’s the same reason Netflix took a bet on a Martin Scorsese movie, The Irishman, that no other studio could justify at the time. The Netflix entering 2023 is vastly different, and the structure behind some of those mega deals will change. When Murphy’s contract is up next year, you can imagine that Disney general entertainment content head Dana Walden would love to bring him back home to the Mouse House (now that Disney owns Fox). The question is whether Netflix would be willing to play ball at the level with Murphy tomorrow the same way it did five years ago. 

So let’s play some media chess. Where is Murphy’s contribution even more valuable? A big part of all future value will include whether Murphy’s previous series are available, where he’s creatively fulfilled and has the same freedom Netflix seemed to give him, and where his audience is currently subscribed. The easy answer is Disney, including Hulu, which is the streaming home to FX, and where Murphy’s other series are available. Having Murphy create more value for Disney Television as a whole, spread out across linear (FX, ABC) and streaming (Disney+, Hulu) very likely would be the most beneficial to both parties.