‘Stranger Things’ vs. ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’: Measuring Summer’s Streaming Showdown

'Stranger Things' vs. 'Obi-Wan Kenobi': Measuring
Courtesy of Netflix, Disney+; VIP+

Which came out on top in summer’s big streaming showdown of “Stranger Things” vs. “Obi-Wan Kenobi”? Despite the data now available, we still don’t really know.

As expected, “Stranger Things 4” delivered blockbuster viewing numbers for Netflix. “Volume 1” of the hit sci-fi series’ fourth season notched the biggest premiere weekend ever for an English-language show on the platform, with more than 286 million hours viewed, the streamer reported. Even going by Nielsen’s reduced tally, the numbers were huge: Per the TV ratings giant, “Stranger Things 4” was watched for over 4 billion minutes, or 66.7 million hours, in its first weekend.

The season has held strong over subsequent weeks, dominating Netflix’s “Top 10” list of its most streamed content each week since its debut, even as weekly viewership has declined over time. Most recently, “Stranger Things 4” racked up another 102 million hours for the week of June 13-19, per Netflix data; it has also surpassed “Bridgerton” as the service’s most watched English-language series. 

Meanwhile, “Obi-Wan Kenobi” scored a record-high premiere for Disney+, according to Nielsen, racking up more than 1 billion minutes, or 16.7 million hours, of viewing time — obviously, far behind “Stranger Things.” (One caveat to note here: Nielsen’s streaming metrics only count viewing in the U.S. — and only on TVs, not computers or other devices, which is one reason it has drawn criticism for perceived inaccuracy.)

But simply comparing the two shows’ viewing time is not an adequate metric in this case. “Stranger Things,” after all, had seven new episodes available to watch in its premiere weekend, with runtimes ranging from 63 to 100 minutes; “Obi-Wan” had only two, both under an hour long.

For that reason, Nielsen also calculated “total viewers in the average minute” of both shows’ premiere episodes. “Stranger Things” had the edge here as well, with 12.7 million viewers in its first episode’s average minute, versus 11.2 million for “Obi-Wan.”

So whichever way you slice it, it seems “Stranger Things” has come out on top, at least for now. “Obi-Wan” has continued dropping episodes weekly (the finale premieres Wednesday), and limited viewership data will continue to roll out in the weeks ahead. Unlike Netflix, Disney+ does not disclose any numbers at all, and Nielsen’s figures are usually delayed by several weeks. We’ll have a better picture, though not a full one, of how “Obi-Wan” performed overall when those numbers arrive.

But even those numbers — or any viewership tallies — aren’t enough to truly measure these shows’ performances.

The terms of success in streaming are changing dramatically, and judging a series’ true value to a platform is consequently becoming knottier than ever. Like movies, original streaming shows have to deliver big numbers quickly or risk being written off as a failure (especially on Netflix). They have to help draw subscribers, but increasingly they also have to help convince existing subscribers to stick around and not simply churn out once they’ve finished watching a given show.  

As such, any one series is less important than the service’s library, but the library must keep growing to keep the subscriber base growing, the conventional wisdom goes. To do that, lots of money needs to be spent on content, but now investors are growing leery of that spending.

As the streaming business evolves, then, series will have to start justifying their expenses by visibly contributing to their services’ profitability. To do that, answers will be needed for a lot of long-unanswered questions. 

Take “Stranger Things.” We know the arrival of season 4 provided a viewership boost for the series as a whole, as Netflix’s Top 10 rankings have also featured seasons 1-3 since season 4 premiered. We also know that season 3 racked up 582.1 million hours viewed in its first 28 days, while season 4 has become Netflix’s most popular season of English-language TV ever, with over 883 million hours.

But we don’t know the total viewing time or number of viewers for “Stranger Things” over its entire run, or any context for the numbers Netflix has chosen to report. How much of that viewing time for earlier seasons came from fans rewatching the show, and how much came from new subscribers watching it for the first time?

And if those viewers churn out, canceling their subscriptions after “Stranger Things 4” drops its remaining episodes next month, how much revenue is the show really going to generate, particularly with its blockbuster budget?

These are questions Netflix — and Disney, for that matter — may soon have to answer, as their forays into advertising will require a lot more disclosure and accountability than the streamers have previously been willing to provide. In the new streaming landscape, even a juggernaut like “Stranger Things” doesn’t mean as much as it used to.