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Is Hot Hollywood really the #5 podcast in Podtrac?

December 18, 2019 · By · 3.4 minutes to read

Congratulations to American Media LLC, who have two new entries in Podtrac’s top 20 (US) podcast list for November 2019.

Us Weekly’s Hot Hollywood is new at #5 - nestling between This American Life and The Ben Shapiro Show. But, Hot Hollywood is not a podcast that I’d not heard of before.

Checking Chartable - Hot Hollywood has never broken the top 200 in any global Apple Podcasts chart. Ben Shapiro is at #6, currently in 20 different charts across the world, including “US: All Podcasts” where it’s at #20. This American Life, at #4, is similarly in 20 different charts across the world; it’s #10 in “US: All Podcasts”. Curious.

Castbox gives publicly visible subscription figures for the podcasts on its service, which is useful to get some kind of idea of the relative size of podcasts. This American Life, for example, has 593,368 subscribers, and has been played 10,060,000 times; Ben Shapiro has 255,799 subscribers, and has been played 17,288,104 times. However, Hot Hollywood, the podcast has got 127 subscribers on the app and has been played 3,703 times.

Perhaps Hot Hollywood is a new podcast, and in which case, the low numbers in Castbox would be understandable. But, no: it’s been publishing weekly since October 2018, and has got 57 episodes out there.

Spotify users are younger and clearly more interested in the kind of subject matter of Hot Hollywood, so perhaps all the plays are being driven by Spotify rather than conventional podcast apps. Except: no, that’s not the case either - the podcast isn’t on Spotify (as far as we can see).

So, where are these plays coming from?

I took a look at their website. Currently linked from the front page, we chose this story. Web pages on the US Weekly website download an astonishing amount of ads and trackers - while I was writing this, I left the page alone for thirteen minutes, during which time it quietly made 3,500 requests and downloaded 158MB of data from a variety of ad-tech providers.

There is an embedded player from Simplecast on this page. It’s an old player, launched by Simplecast in 2016, but retired in July 2019 with the rebuild of their platform. But it works just fine - and does not automatically download the audio.

On desktop.

But it turns out that the old Simplecast embedded player reacts differently if it’s called from an Android phone. If you’re using Android, on every story on Us Weekly’s website means your phone will automatically download enough audio to count as a “play” - even without you pressing the play button.

Simplecast’s old player was based on jPlayer, an open-source audio player. That contains code (on line 844) that tells an Android phone to preload more audio, to fix a bug in Android 2.3 (a version of Android that nobody really uses any more).

Preloading the audio looks, to Podtrac, as a “play”. But it isn’t. Not really. The hundreds of thousands of visitors to every single story on the Us Weekly website have looked, to Podtrac, as hundreds of thousands of podcast plays.

(The audio file itself is 42MB long. The browser appears to “only” download 1.2MB of that, but that’s over the nominal 960KB for a minute’s audio. I’ve spent some time trying to understand how big the album art is in the file, but not had much luck: if it’s 166KB as I suspect it might be, then the browser is still loading more than 60 seconds of audio. That means Podtrac would still be correctly marking this as a “play”, since it’s downloading over a minute’s worth of audio.)

The good news is that new Simplecast players and websites don’t preload like this any more. The bad news is that the old version of the player… did.

I’ve let Simplecast and Podtrac know of these findings. It’s nothing deliberate that I can see. But - is Hot Hollywood really #5 in the most-downloaded podcasts from Podtrac? No - sadly, it appears that it’s also counting every single pageview from Android users.

—James is the Editor of Podnews, and was first involved in podcasting in January 2005.

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