Ask anyone — when did you fall in love with your favorite show — and you’ll likely get a quick response. George Clooney rescuing a drowning kid on ER, that raucous debate from Community‘s first season, the shotgun-toting Betty of Mad Men‘s early days.
But Netflix is pretty sure the moment you got hooked wasn’t during a pilot episode. In an examination of more than 20 shows across 16 global markets, Netflix found that pilot episodes rarely, if ever, snare viewers for the long haul — a finding the streaming service says reinforces its binge-friendly approach.
The study’s result, says Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos, “gives us confidence that giving our members all episodes at once is more aligned with how fans are made.” But for those of us not on the Netflix payroll, the more enticing findings involve specific shows — who would have guessed that Pretty Little Liars sealed the deal quicker than Mad Men?
In its analysis of global streaming data, Netflix tried to identify the first-season episode when 70% of viewers decided to complete a program’s entire season. Although the service couldn’t determine the exact dramatic moment or comic gag that kept viewers coming back for more, the study intriguingly points up variations, however minor, in the programs studied. Judging by figures released for a dozen of the shows Netflix studied, the sweet spot seems to be Episode 4 — that’s the episode that grabbed viewers for Grace And Frankie, Pretty Little Liars, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Better Call Saul. (The figures, by the way, have nothing to do with audience size; the numbers merely indicate the point in each series when fans became loyal fans.)
Surprisingly — or maybe not — Netflix viewers took a bit longer to warm up to both Mad Men (six episodes) and How I Met Your Mother (eight). For Mad Men, the tipping point arrived with the “Babylon” episode on August 23, 2007, when secretary Peggy steps forward with a career-changing approach to a lipstick campaign. The HIMYM episode that seems to win viewer affection arrived on November 14, 2005, when Ted (Josh Radnor) and Marshall (Jason Segel) settle their differences with a sword fight.
No surprise about Breaking Bad, which was one of the more quickly addictive programs studied, with viewers hooked after a mere two episodes — specifically, the January 27, 2008 “Cat’s In The Bag” episode that featured the unforgettably tense moment when Walt (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse (Aaron Paul) flip a coin to decide which one will kill the still-breathing Krazy 8 (Max Arciniega).
For Netflix, the significant finding was the reinforcement that the binge-watching option enticed viewers to stick around beyond pilot episodes that don’t always gain immediate loyalty.
“Given the precious nature of primetime slots on traditional TV, a series pilot is arguably the most important point in the life of the show,” said Sarandos. “However, in our research of more than 20 shows across 16 markets, we found that no one was ever hooked on the pilot.”
The study also found some differences among nations. The Dutch grab onto a series most quickly, generally an episode ahead of other countries. Germans took an early shine to Arrow, as did France for How I Met Your Mother. Brazilians caught on to Better Call Saul more quickly (by one episode) than Mexicans did, while Australia and New Zealand generally take an episode or two longer than the rest of the world on just about every show studied.
So, what episode got you hooked on your favorite show?