When Netflix said its new show The Witcher was tracking to be its biggest-ever TV debut, folks all over the internet—and throughout the Barron’s newsroom—asked the same question: What the hell is The Witcher?
The show, which one might call a poor man’s Game of Thrones, made its debut on Dec. 20 and has become a cultural phenomenon. It’s based on a Polish fantasy novel series written by Andrzej Sapkowski. First published in 1993, the book created a world of dragons, monster killers, and sorceresses.
Decades later, we can’t get enough. Some 76 million households watched the show in its first four weeks, Netflix (ticker: NFLX) said this past week. CEO Reed Hastings called it a “massive new franchise that will develop season after season.” For a sense of just how big The Witcher has become, the latest season of The Crown, one of Netflix’s most expensive shows, had 21 million household views in its first four weeks.
Largely thanks to The Witcher, Netflix beat overall expectations in the fourth quarter, with 8.3 million net new subscribers internationally and 420,000 in the U.S. Wall Street expected 7.2 million international adds and 618,000 domestic adds.
But it wasn’t a perfect quarter, and Netflix shares actually fell on the earnings news. Netflix said that its recent price increases and launches by competitors—Apple TV+ and Disney+ both started in November—had a negative effect on domestic subscriber growth. Netflix blamed churn, or customer turnover, for a lower-than-expected subscriber forecast for the first quarter.
Moreover, Netflix is making a big change to how it measures viewership. Going forward, it will count a household view after two minutes of watch time versus the prior method, which required viewers to complete 70% of a show or movie. Netflix said the new methodology boosts metrics by 35% on average. Messing with metrics is often a red flag about future trends.
Netflix stock fell 3.6% the day after its earnings results, but the stock rebounded and actually gained 4% on the week.
Last July, as Stranger Things was driving Netflix results, I expressed skepticism about Netflix’s ability to find a continued stream of big hits, especially with tech giants and legacy media companies spending billions on their own streaming platforms. Netflix and The Witcher have proved me wrong.
Netflix is taking so many chances these days—the company spent $15 billion on content last year—that it’s almost certain to find a few big hits every year. And that might be all the company needs to maintain its momentum.
“We’re doing so many shows, our learning is higher,” Hastings said at the end of the company’s earnings call this past week. “The quality of our service two or three years from now will be so much higher than it is today. That’s the thing that’s not well understood.”
The rise of The Witcher could be Hastings’ best proof point. During the earnings call, Netflix’s content chief Ted Sarandos said there was “pent-up demand” for the show from longtime fans of The Witcher.
The Witcher first gained cult status through the videogame world. Game publisher CD Projekt says its Witcher games have sold more than 40 million copies. That’s how I came across the franchise. It’s obvious that The Witcher show runner Lauren Hissrich went to great lengths to honor the game, from the acting, to costume design, to action sequences. It all points to the increasing cultural influence of videogames.
“There is a high overlap between videogame players and regular watchers of premium video content, including Netflix,” says SunTrust Robinson Humphrey analyst Matthew Thornton. “The more important thing is that it also brings increased engagement. Gamers will spend more time in the game and spend more money on more content.”
The positive feedback loop is working for The Witcher across multiple mediums. CD Projekt has said that the number of gamers playing its last Witcher game, which was released more than four years ago, reached a record after the TV show’s release. The next Witcher release is likely to be a blockbuster of its own.
Meanwhile, Netflix’s show has driven the original 1993 Witcher novel toward the top of the New York Times and Amazon.com best-seller lists. Last week, the book’s publisher, Orbit, announced that it was reprinting more than 500,000 copies of Sapkowski’s novels to meet “exceptional demand.”
The big numbers mean that streaming platforms can no longer ignore the videogame world. Game publishers would be wise to play along. In sourcing gaming material, Netflix, Apple (AAPL), and Amazon.com (AMZN) should be looking for passionate fan bases and a fully developed world with great storytelling in the fantasy or science-fiction genre. A few franchises that fit the criteria are Electronic Arts ’ (EA) space opera Mass Effect and Nintendo’s (NTDOY) Metroid and Zelda series.
“Nintendo is squandering a content gold mine by largely ignoring TV and film,” says Josh Constine, a Nintendo fan and editor at large for TechCrunch. “It’s easy to imagine a Zelda film trilogy similar to Lord of The Rings. Metroid could become a [Disney+] Mandalorian-style TV series tracking the bounty hunter Samus as she fights monsters on different planets.”
I asked Nintendo of America if it plans to make or license its Metroid and Zelda franchises for TV, given The Witcher’s success. The company emailed back, “We have nothing to announce on this topic.”
Not yet, at least.
Write to Tae Kim at firstname.lastname@example.org