Is it the biggest new TV series, or a niche hit buoyed by questionable statistics? Is the show a confusing jumble that only a predisposed fan could love, or a bold new serving of fantasy that conjures a realm on par with Middle-earth or Westeros?
In the Balkanized world of television in 2020, “The Witcher” is, apparently, all of the above.
Netflix’s announcement last week that “The Witcher” is the streaming platform’s most popular debut series ignited equal parts skepticism and cheers. To its passionate fans, the news came as no surprise. But it raised some eyebrows beyond that base—and a recent change in how Netflix counts viewers hasn’t helped.
Such is the nature of a hit in the streaming era: A program that drives obsession in many viewers often draws blank stares from others. In this ecosystem where word-of-mouth has as much influence as the algorithms that anticipate users’ taste, there are countless niches—and even the big ones sometimes lack mainstream awareness.
In a letter to investors Tuesday, Netflix revealed that “The Witcher,” a show about a sword-swinging monster hunter that unfolds across three timelines, had emerged as the streaming platform’s most popular debut series ever. To back that up, the company said 76 million member households “chose to watch” “The Witcher” in the four weeks since last month’s release of its eight-episode season. Netflix has 167 million subscribers world-wide, 61 million of which are in the U.S.
Behind the blockbuster figures for “The Witcher” and other Netflix productions is a moving measuring stick. The streamer, which is selective with the data it makes public, in previous reports tallied member households that had watched 70% of a TV episode or movie. Now, the company is touting the number of households that watched at least 2 minutes of a program—“long enough to indicate the choice was intentional,” the streamer explained in its letter.
Netflix said it switched its methodology to make the standard more balanced for shorter and longer content—resulting in an average boost to its viewership figures of about 35%.
Without more transparency about how many viewers stuck with “The Witcher” for more than two minutes, “it’s better to not look at Netflix’s definition of this as a hit without an asterisk next to it,” says Tim Hanlon, chief executive of the Vertere Group, a media advisory and consulting firm. In his own personal viewing, he has not yet sampled “The Witcher”: “It’s been on my radar but has not crossed the line to stop-everything-and-watch.”
Tigran Asatryan, who runs a website dedicated to breaking news about “The Witcher,” says the streamer’s boast of launching an international hit checks out. “It’s the biggest thing out there right now,” says Mr. Asatryan of Lyon, France, who owns the site Redanian Intelligence (named after a secret service agency in the “Witcher” world).
But he concedes his view is from inside the bubble of “Witcher” fandom. It ranges from passionate discussion groups on Reddit and VK (a Russian equivalent of Facebook), to viewers who got hooked on a song from the show titled “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher.” And even Mr. Asatryan questions the relevance of Netflix’s popularity metric.
Netflix has big ambitions for “The Witcher,” hoping to create “a massive new franchise that will develop season after season,” as CEO Reed Hastings said in a recent video statement. A second season is in the works and the company recently announced an animated movie tie-in.
The show arrived with a pre-existing, multifaceted fan base: It’s based on a series of books and videogames about the saga of the title character, aka Geralt of Rivia. Viewers coming to the series cold have sometimes found it a little hard to follow.
The character, played in the Netflix series by movie star Henry Cavill, has a mane of white hair, drinks magical potions, and commands ultra strength, agility and sight resulting from Witcher mutations. The show also juggles story lines of two other core characters, Yennefer ( Anya Chalotra), an outcast who develops into a sorceress, and Ciri ( Freya Allan), a magic-endowed princess.
Early reviews, even positive ones, have noted the show’s complexity. “‘Strange’ is an understatement. For newcomers, there’s a lot to absorb, starting with Geralt’s name,” wrote an IndieWire critic in a review titled “Henry Cavill’s Netflix Series Is Absolutely Nuts.” “The show demands a bit more from viewers…It took me a few episodes to get a solid sense of things,” said a review in the Verge.
Netflix’s efforts to breed a monster-size fantasy hit with global reach has brought “The Witcher” comparisons to HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” When that series debuted almost nine years ago, however, its first season was relatively light on magic and mythical creatures.
By contrast, “The Witcher” is “very in your face and unapologetic about how ‘fantasy’ it is,” says Graham Blackaby of Seattle, who weighed in on the Netflix series in a review on his Captain Midnight channel on YouTube, dubbing it an “underrated hit.”
He had some “Witcher” quibbles, including occasionally subpar visual effects, but praised the show’s character development and episodic storytelling, such as Geralt’s stand-alone quest to face a cursed ghoul called a striga. The very first scene of the series, in which the hero slices up a giant insect with a humanoid face, served as a sort of mission statement, one that core fans, at least, could get down with.
“I think it’s safe to say that some critics checked out immediately when they hit that kind of stuff,” says Mr. Blackaby, invoking what he calls the “passion gap” reflected in the disparity of opinion about “The Witcher.” On the aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes, for example, 66% of professional critics gave the show positive reviews, compared with 92% kudos from regular users.
Write to John Jurgensen at [email protected]
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