There’s only one Joe Exotic, but we’ve seen other “Tiger Kings.” The original was “House of Cards.” In 2015, it was “Making A Murderer.” Just weeks ago, “Love Is Blind” swept the country. It wasn’t until late February, however, that we knew which Netflix shows were even popular.
We still don’t technically know how popular “House of Cards” and “Making A Murderer” were. We know that Netflix put resources behind both. We know people in the press and on social media talked about the series. We know critics loved them. It’s safe to assume a lot of Americans were watching. But we don’t have a reliable number.
Before streaming, we could compare viewership figures for just about every major television program. As of this month, we can at least compare viewership for every show on Netflix, even if we can’t compare Netflix viewership to networks, cable, or other streaming platforms, thanks to its daily top-10 rankings. This makes “Tiger King” the first big hit of Netflix’s new era.
“Love Is Blind” premiered a couple of weeks before the top 10 feature was rolled out, but ultimately landed in the number-one slot (and regularly hung out in that neighborhood for about a month, if this Reddit archive is to be believed). “Tiger King” is the top overall content offering on Netflix as of Wednesday.
What we still don’t know is how many people watch these shows, like we know roughly how many people are watching network and cable television. But we at least know they’re popular, which helps us distinguish between media darlings and legitimate hits. (Meme culture is somewhat more democratic, and can be helpful here, but it’s hardly Nielson.) That may sound like hairsplitting, but it’s actually a huge deal.
When “Love Is Blind” was sweeping the country, “The Trials Of Gabriel Fernandez” were regularly right there up at the top of the rankings with it. One seemed to get much more buzz in the press.
The media’s cultural tastes are very different from those of people outside educated urban circles, which inflates the importance of the shows and movies they watch and creates harmful blindspots among members of the elite and consumers of media. Here’s a question: Are more people watching “American Idol” than “Tiger King”? What about “Love is Blind” versus “The Bachelor”? It’s impossible to say, and that’s still a problem. But at least now we know more people are watching “Tiger King” and “Ozark” than, for instance, “Self Made.” It’s not good enough, but it’s good.
Amid the pandemic, ratings are up. Streaming is up. A survey (albeit with a small sample size) found Netflix is currently the overwhelming favorite among streaming services. The platform is estimated to have more subscribers than its competitors. That means the top shows on Netflix are presumably drawing a lot of eyeballs.
All this is to say I’m genuinely glad that in this time of immense uncertainty, we can at least be reasonably certain that the crazy show about a man named Joe Exotic is more than a curiosity of media elites—it’s actually keeping a broad audience company as the harsh reality of this pandemic takes hold. Quarantine can feel like being in a cage, and the arc of Joe’s story has something to say about that.