Netflix’s Tiger King Is the COVID-19 Lockdown’s First Smash Hit

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Key insights:

As Americans continue to stay home amid the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of them are passing the time by getting a glimpse of the outside world—that is, the outside world containing outlandish big cat enthusiasts like Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin.

Tiger King: Murder, Madness and Mayhem, the true-crime documentary series that landed on Netflix in late March, has been viewed by 34.3 million Americans in its first 10 days on the service, according to figures from Nielsen’s SVOD Content Ratings.

That viewership is just shy of the record 10-day viewership figures from the third season of the ultra-popular Netflix series Stranger Things, which reached 36.3 million viewers in that timeframe, but is still an extraordinary number for a show that few people were aware of just a month ago.

As always, Nielsen’s SVOD Content Ratings are U.S.-only and include connected television devices, but not other internet-connected devices like mobile phones, so Tiger King’s actual viewership figures are even higher.

Netflix’s own limited metrics have also showed the docuseries’ massive popularity: according to Netflix’s own Top 10 list, Tiger King has been the No. 1 show or movie on the service in the U.S. since March 23—longer than two weeks—according to Adweek’s own tracking of the list.

The Nielsen data shows how Tiger King may have benefited from housebound audiences around the country looking for entertainment and escape. The series debuted on March 20 to a relatively small average per-minute audience of about 280,000 U.S. viewers, and reached a per-minute audience of 1.3 million by its third day, Nielsen reported.

By the seventh day, Tiger King’s per-minute audience had cleared 2 million. Nielsen estimated that the show had an average per-minute audience of nearly 19 million in its first 10 days on the service.

Nielsen’s 10-day figures conclude on March 29, so Tiger King’s ratings since then are likely still hefty, considering its staying power at the top of Netflix’s own charts. Netflix will likely provide more data about Tiger King’s audience when it announces its quarterly earnings on April 21.

The viewership numbers for Tiger King come as viewing on streaming services and linear television alike has skyrocketed during the pandemic, a small silver lining for an industry grappling with shuttered production and advertiser uncertainty.

As linear television runs out of live sports and other tentpole programming, streaming services that already have programming in the bag to be released see an opportunity to entice audiences with their own content offerings. Hulu last month released its original drama Little Fires Everywhere a day early as part of several streaming-related giveaways and special offers; that trend has only accelerated since then.

Netflix, with more than 61 subscribers in the U.S., is perhaps best-positioned among the streamers to be the origin of a cultural phenomenon. With Tiger King, the streamer has found it: the series has inspired memes across Instagram, TikTok and Twitter as viewers all across the country stream the series.

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