The Netflix Effect: Silly Journalism

December 19, 2014

DC  Comics editor Julius Schwartz had a habit of commissioning covers first, and then telling the writer & artist of the book to work from that cover. It’s a creative approach to fiction, but not ideal for writing the news.

The Ontario Government released a list of the most popular baby names in 2014, and noted that some names seem to be inspired by popular TV shows. The Toronto Star went a step further, and wrote a story about The Netflix Effect, theorizing that baby names weren’t merely influenced by television, but specifically by TV shows streamed on Netflix. Then they attempted to back up their theory.

Dubbed the “Netflix Effect,” the names of characters from shows such as Orange is the New Black are hitting the top 100 or 150 or just making an appearance thanks to the popularity of Internet-streamed series.

First things first: If you google “Netflix Effect”, you get nearly 11 million results, and almost none of them are about babies. It is overwhelmingly used to describe changing methods of entertainment production, distribution, and consumption. “More women having quintuplets” would be an appropriate baby-oriented “Netflix Effect.”

At least they started simply: As a creation of Netflix, a show like Orange is the New Black would seem to be a good test case for “The Netflix Effect.” But you’ve got to scroll down to the bottom third of the article for any explanation:  “Some 93 Ontarians named their child Piper, the main character in the prison series Orange is the New Black.”

Ninety-three Pipers is not a lot, compared to 969 Olivias or 290 Sarahs. But is there any connection to Orange is the New Black? When you look at historical data for Ontario, Piper only starts showing up in the mid-90s, and gradually increases. In 2010 – long before Orange and before Netflix became a dominant force – there were 61 Pipers born in Ontario. I can’t find the numbers for 2011-2012, but at most you can attribute 20-30 new Pipers to Netflix. It would be slightly more convincing to argue that Ontarians had been influenced by the career of Piper Perabo, who “broke out” in Coyote Ugly in 2000, and rose to “prominence” on Covert Affairs in 2010.

The Star also cites Breaking Bad as an influence. And while Skylar certainly appears to have spiked in recent years – it hovered around 40 per year over the previous decade, but hit 104 in 2013 – other names are less specific to the show. There were 18 Walters born in 2013, which is actually fewer than in 2010. Meanwhile, Jesse has been trending down for the past decade, from 633 in 1990 to 166 in 2000, and all that Netflix binging resulted in a mere 87 new Ontario Jesses.

But even accepting that Skylar’s increased popularity is a result of Breaking Bad… must it also be tied to Netflix? While one can safely assume that many people watched Breaking Bad on Netflix, it was also on AMC every week. (I can’t find Canadian ratings, but there would be nothing to compare it to, since Netflix doesn’t release much data about who’s watching what.)

The answer quickly becomes clear: Because nobody thought this theory through. The Star goes on to point out the increase in popularity of names from Game of Thrones, which is perfectly reasonable – aside from the fact that Game of Thrones has never been available on Netflix.

And then there’s Sons of Anarchy, which occupies something of a grey space: The show has never been available on Netflix in Canada, but you could watch it on Netflix US with a VPN client. So maybe there are lots of people watching Sons of Anarchy on US Netflix, and maybe they’re naming their children after the characters on the show. But how can one be sure? At this point, The Star put the data aside and went out in to the field to find some people who had named their child after a TV show about biker gangs they watched on the internet.

Natasha and Rod McLeod of Angus, Ont., named their son Jax when he was born in 2011, but knew nothing about Sons of Anarchy or its key character.

“We do watch the show now,” said Natasha McLeod. “We are in love with it.”

Perhaps The Netflix Effect has been misunderstood this whole time: Maybe people are naming their babies, and then seeking out entertainment that validates their choice. Netflix, with its immense catalogue, would be a logical place to start looking for some justification for naming your child “Jax.”