It’s that time of year again when networks begin to decide which shows you will or won’t be watching next year. Many shows’ fates have already been decided and it’s evident if you can’t find them on the schedule. Other shows, you might need to wait another month to be sure. But ultimately what keeps a show on the air, is how well it does in the ratings game. Despite how good or bad a show is doesn’t matter much to the networks unless it’s bringing in a certain amount of viewers.
Since I’ve accepted my role as being an entertainment enthusiast, I keep a close eye on the fate of many shows, whether I’m a fan of them or not. How can one tell if a show will survive another season, or in some cases, survive til the next episode? RATINGS! This is one of many sources I keep an eye on.
“So how do ratings work?” you ask.
I’m glad you asked. In order for me to explain why I feel the current TV rating system is flawed, I need for you to understand how they currently work. Honestly, as many times as it’s been explained to me, I still get confused. But to at least set a baseline understanding of what the Nielsen ratings are and how they’re calculated, check out this nifty little video I found.
Never mind the jargon sometime after the 3:30 mark in the video about points, pie charts and percentages. While they are very important to factor, that’s not entirely what I have issues with (partially because that’s where I get lost). The Nielsen ratings aren’t as accurate as they think they, or at least that’s my opinion.
Here’s my main problem with the current ratings system. As of 2012, they don’t take into account the throngs of people who watch TV shows online. Whether that’s through a network’s website or sites like Hulu. I haven’t done a study or looked for one that has a rounded number of how many people choose streaming TV over broadcast, but I know I’m in that number, and I know hordes of others who prefer watching their favorite shows on their own time by the glow of their computer screens.
Let’s remember one thing: the ratings are all about advertising. Why do you think so many companies pay so much money for Super Bowl ads? Millions of people are watching, so that ad time is incredibly precious and ridiculously expensive. This gets a little bit into marketing and other business talk I try to avoid, but it’s business nonetheless. You can’t get something for nothing, so you can’t see your favorite show if there aren’t sponsors to pay for it.
Enter the Upfronts. Late in the month of May is when networks meet with advertisers (and the press) to show them what shows they’ll be showing in the fall (or the following spring). The advertisers then can buy the times they want to air their ads, since certain shows are marketed towards certain audiences (this was explained in the video more or less). But this event occurs around the same time the previous TV season is ending with season (or series) finales. If a show is barely being watched, the network will cancel the show because it’s not making them any money. And of course, the way to measure how many people are watching is by using the Nielsen ratings.
Savvy ratings watchers start to panic when their beloved shows are in danger and make efforts to keep their program from being cancelled OR being brought back from cancellation, including (but not limited to) signing petitions, writing letters to the network execs, or going as far as to send in tons peanuts (see Jericho) or DVD sales (Family Guy). It’s extremely rare for a series to come back, or even for a series to be saved. While millions might catch on to the show during the save-the-show campaign, if none of those millions are Nielsen families, it means nothing… unless the networks have faith in the show and recognize an audience exists for those shows “on the bubble” of being cancelled.
All blame can’t go to Nielsen though, sometimes it’s the network’s fault for bad scheduling. Again, Family Guy was a victim of this, and especially cult favorite Arrested Development, which is happily returning to Netflix next year. I think the only other show left that people are still protesting about is Firefly. Interestingly enough, all these shows were on FOX… but now isn’t the time to get network specific.
“But perhaps the problem with online viewing is the difference in commercials,” a savvy thinker thinks. The advertisers might only be purchasing TV time, not internet time, which is something they should consider. You can show me the Lexus on TV, why not run the same ad on Hulu? One would think, or hope, that the networks would have a finger on this streaming pulse that is becoming more and more popular. Or the very least, Nielsen would grow an appendage to figure out a way to meter it. Your IP address can be your vote to keep a show on the air and keep advertisers aware of your online presence. Sorry paranoid folks, you’re always be watched.
I’d also think with most people having cable and digital cable boxes, the cable company could get a report on who’s watching what. I fear by having them do this, it would only raise my bill higher. But surely they can send reports to networks whenever anyone uses their OnDemand feature that’s also becoming incredibly popular. This is great for both consumers and broadcasters: consumers can watch their shows, broadcasters can still show them commercials that go with that particular show. Win-win!
There are alternative rating systems out there. Unfortunately, I can’t remember what or who they are and I’ve searched for it for the better part of an hour. But this alternative system is apparently more accurate than the Nielsen system. I suppose the jury is out on that one until I can find it (and the jury). If you know who I’m talking about, post it in the comments and I’ll revise this paragraph with their information so no one thinks I’m making it up.
But since we are in a world run by social media and smartphones, there’s been a growing number of people who use apps to “check in” to shows they’re watching. For the past year, I’ve noticed more and more people using Get Glue, an app that rewards viewers with stickers for whatever show they are tuned in to. (I’m short-selling Get Glue because I prefer the newer kid on the block, Viggle.) With Viggle, checking into a show will grant you points that equal rewards like gift cards and movie tickets. Viggle has another interesting spin on watching TV–some shows reward you with more points than others. I can either get 300 points for watching a new show I’m not familiar with, let’s say Awake (I’m a big fan actually), or get 50 points for watching a rerun of I Love Lucy. If I’m trying to win a Kindle Fire that’s redeemable after 375,000 points, then I guess I’ll be watching Awake. I don’t want to buy one, but if all I have to do is watch TV to get one, then sign me up! Not only am I discovering a new favorite show, but I’m being rewarded for it. Win-win again.
My point here is that results from these apps could be factored into an improved ratings system. Let’s not forget the almighty Twitter and Facebook. (For the record, you’re able to update and tweet using Get Glue and Viggle.) I don’t know how many times Twitter has been the reason I may tune into a show because it was a trending topic. Surely this would get a network’s attention. Fringe has lately made use of hashtag phrases relating to particular episodes, most of which become trending topics on Friday night. It also must be noted that Community has at least once made it on the trending board when it wasn’t even on the air! And of course, there are shows that aren’t “ratings challenged” but still make it to Twitter, maybe by way of a character’s name, action, or phrase that was said.
To sum up my main argument and my main issue for writing this: networks shouldn’t make certain actions based on one single report. Yes, it’s been around for a very long time and they might tell me “It ain’t broke.” I’m say it is, times have changed and there are better ways to gather data. The Nielsen system doesn’t necessarily have to be done away with, just modified or perhaps combined to get a more accurate rating of what is being watched, by whom, when and where. Once this information is calculated, advertisers might have more options and/or an easier time selling us things we never knew we needed, like a Kindle Fire.
Thanks to my friend and fellow blogger/podcaster/entertainment enthusiast Ariel (who has more aliases than I can keep track of), I’m now aware of another TV check in app called IntoNow brought to you by the fine people at Yahoo. I’ve only been using it a couple days but I find it to have some interesting information, including how many check-ins for a show within the last 24 hours, week, 30 days or all time. Again, I don’t use Get Glue, so I don’t know how similar that app is. But just like Viggle and Get Glue, IntoNow allows you to tweet or post on Facebook whatever show you just checked into, along with the show’s Twitter address if applicable. Overall, another tool that could be used to influence a better viewership rating.