Throughout the fall, the producer Greg Berlanti was trying to save his cable drama “You.”
The series had premiered on Lifetime in September, but its viewership was virtually nonexistent: roughly 650,000 people were tuning in to each episode of the soapy stalker thriller, starring Penn Badgley. Even Mr. Berlanti, one of the most successful and prolific producers in television thanks to shows like “Riverdale,” “Arrow” and “Blindspot,” conceded in an interview that “barely anybody watched” it.
He made repeated calls to Lifetime executives, asking for patience and making his case for a second season. It wasn’t enough. In early December, Lifetime announced it was finished with “You.”
But right after Christmas, something happened. “You” started lighting up social media. People were searching for it online. Entertainment sites like The Ringer were writing about the show.
What changed? It began streaming on Netflix.
Mr. Berlanti heard from family and friends about how much they were enjoying his new show, ignoring the fact that it had debuted months earlier.
“It’s very often in direct proportion to how young they are,” he said. “The younger they are, the more they discuss the show as though it had never existed before Dec. 26.”
Last week, Netflix declared “You” had drawn the sort of audience to make it a “huge hit.” The streaming service said that “You” was on track to be watched by 40 million households within its first four weeks on the service.
The Netflix viewership disclosure — one of the few times the service has made those numbers public, seven years after it began airing original series — set off something of an earthquake in the industry.
Could the numbers be believed? Could it be possible that a show that premiered on cable television may as well not have existed until Netflix — which now has 139 million paying subscribers, including 58.5 million in the United States — came around to stream it? Netflix is already a television network and a movie studio. Was it one step closer to effectively becoming television itself?
As Daniel D’Addario, a TV critic for Variety, posited, “‘You’ flailing on Lifetime and being treated by the viewing public as a Netflix original is going to be remembered as a major turning point in what will shortly be a contraction of the TV industry.”
And it should be noted that Lifetime is not exactly a ratings wasteland. Its documentary “Surviving R. Kelly” has been one of the year’s early hits.
For the time being, Mr. Berlanti is a believer.
“It went from being one of the least-watched shows I’ve ever worked on and been most proud of — and I’m choosing to take Netflix at their word on this — to being the most-watched show I’ve ever worked on in 20-something years of being in the business,” he said.
Oh, and Netflix is also making a second season of “You.” Filming begins next month.
Throughout the weekend, rival television executives groused privately that the viewership number Netflix released was virtually meaningless. Netflix explained that each of those 40 million viewers had watched at least 70 percent of one episode. (“You” has 10 episodes in its first season.) How that 40 million would translate into a traditional viewership figure is unknown. An average of 12.7 million people have watched this season of “The Big Bang Theory” on CBS, but a significantly higher number of people have sampled at least one episode. Few in the television industry would put much stock in such a figure.
When reached for comment, Lifetime referred to an earlier statement it released when it cut ties with “You,” saying, “We wish the cast and crew the best as the series continues on at Netflix.”
Mr. Berlanti began developing “You” almost four years ago with the producer Sera Gamble. Showtime originally planned to make the series, which is based on a novel by Caroline Kepnes, before passing on it. It then went to Lifetime, which over the summer committed to making a second season.
“You” centers on a Manhattan bookstore manager named Joe (Mr. Badgley) who becomes obsessed with a young woman who stops by his shop. He plumbs her social media channels. He follows her home. He begins reading her text messages. The occasionally hilarious series, which examines internet privacy and youth culture, was warmly received by critics when it debuted in September. The New Yorker called it “a scary, delicious snack of a show.”
What it could not find was an audience on cable. On the days it aired, it had trouble gaining bigger ratings than the 7 a.m. edition of “SportsCenter.”
Luckily for Mr. Berlanti, “You” had a well-financed supporter.
Months before the series premiered, Netflix signed on to be the streaming partner of the series.
Bela Bajaria, a vice president of content for Netflix who scooped up the streaming rights, had seen success with “Riverdale,” another of Mr. Berlanti’s series. In its second season, after “Riverdale” began streaming on Netflix, its viewership on the CW shot up 42 percent. Netflix has had that effect on series before, including AMC’s Emmy-winning drama “Breaking Bad,” which saw increased viewership totals after it began streaming.
Ms. Bajaria was enthusiastic about “You” from the moment she read the script.
“We really felt this hit a sweet spot for our audience and we felt that our members would love the show,” she said. “I was hoping it would be big.”
By the time Lifetime decided to renege on its second season commitment in early December, Netflix said it would make a second season even though the series had not started streaming yet.
Ms. Bajaria’s confidence in the show was well rewarded. She pored over the viewership numbers between Christmas and New Year’s Day and saw Netflix had a hit on its hands immediately after it began streaming.
“It’s actually done well in every region and that doesn’t always happen,” Ms. Bajaria said, saying she was particularly pleased with its performance in Latin America, France and the Philippines.
For Mr. Berlanti, the sudden success of “You,” after months of despair, was reassuring.
“I’ve never had an experience that has been this delayed in television before,” he said. “The fact that it was rewarded by people actually watching made us feel we’re not crazy. We actually did make something that was really enjoyable and fun and a real ride for the audience.”
Mr. Berlanti, beginning to laugh, then compared the series to the obsessive lovelorn central character at the heart of “You.”
“If Joe is a man who is simply just searching for love, well, then, our show finally found the right partner,” he said.