Forget all the headlines calling Netflix "the new HBO." It's even better than that.
The streaming service hit a major benchmark this week when it announced in its third-quarter earnings report that its domestic subscriber base has grown to 31.1 million. That puts it ahead of HBO for the first time, which had about 28.7 million U.S. subscribers at last count… and a three-decade head start.
Of course, Netflix has been riding a tidal wave of good buzz all year long. "House of Cards" debuted to raves in February, announcing Netflix's arrival as a major player in the TV business and earning nine Emmy nominations (the first for an online-only show). Netflix revived cult hit "Arrested Development" in May and then topped itself in July with the women's-prison dramedy "Orange Is the New Black" — which will finish the year as Netflix's most-watched original series ever, and should earn quite a few Emmy nods of its own next year.
We do have to take a lot of this on faith, though, since Netflix doesn't release ratings data for its shows. The most that chief executive Reed Hastings will say about "Orange Is the New Black"'s numbers is that it "enjoys an audience comparable with successful shows on cable and broadcast TV." (So, somewhere between 2 and 25 million viewers.) But there is one show that backs up Netflix's rapidly growing influence with hard numbers, and it's not even one of its original series: AMC's "Breaking Bad."
For its first four and a half seasons, "Breaking Bad" was an acclaimed but modestly rated cable drama that topped out at less than 3 million viewers. But thanks to Netflix making past seasons available for streaming, curious TV watchers were able to get caught up on Walter White's riveting descent into darkness at their own pace. ("BB" is consistently among Netflix's most-viewed TV shows.)
When "Breaking Bad" returned to AMC for its final eight episodes, it exploded: 5.9 million viewers tuned in for the August 11 premiere (nearly doubling the previous series high), with a mind-boggling 10.3 million witnessing last month's series finale. Spikes in viewership like that don't just happen. Sure, we can chalk it up to a few other factors: word of mouth, DVD sales, iTunes. But more than anything, "Breaking Bad"'s massive audience growth is the best evidence we have so far of the sheer power of Netflix.
Meanwhile, HBO is doing just fine, thanks, with an industry-best 108 Emmy nominations this year and its current crown jewel, "Game of Thrones," surging to a peak of 5.5 million viewers in May. But its insistence on requiring a cable subscription puts it at odds with the current cord-cutting movement, and exposes it to a rash of illegal downloads. ("Thrones" topped the list of last year's most pirated TV shows.) And the fickle entertainment press seems to have moved on, too, shrugging off HBO veterans like "True Blood" and "Boardwalk Empire" to lavish praise on Netflix's shiny new offerings.
All in all, it's an admirable bounce-back for Netflix, which just two years ago was mired in bad press after splitting up its streaming service and its DVD-rental service. (Remember Qwikster? It's best if you don't.) Now it's looking to expand its already prodigious reach: Netflix is currently negotiating with cable companies (the enemy!) to add its service to set-top boxes. And its original programming slate — set to double in 2014, by the way — is light years ahead of next-gen rivals Hulu and Amazon.
Hastings tried to sound modest in a letter to shareholders: "We have done well, but we have a long way to go to match HBO’s 114 million global member count or their well-deserved Emmy Award leadership." Or perhaps he was just mapping out the next mountain for Netflix to climb.