News’ Need to Pump Web Traffic Presents Speedbump for Network TV Coverage

For years, the interests of TV networks and newspapers were pretty closely aligned - today, however, the old rules are shifting

Newspaper Web Traffic TV Coverage
Ryan Snook

For years, the interests of TV networks and newspapers were pretty closely aligned, or seemed to be. Broadcasters trotted out new shows in the fall. Newspapers dutifully reviewed them and timed feature stories to their premiere. Newspapers then reported in short order on their success or (more often) failure.

Today, however, the old rules are shifting. And in a traffic-driven age that has transformed traditional print outlets into digital entities every bit as ratings-motivated as the networks they long derided as pandering to the lowest common denominator, priorities have begun diverging in two key areas — one involving criticism, and the other the analysis of ratings.

First, reviewing unproven new programs is hardly the best means of generating traffic, with the playing field tilting toward existing fare that already possesses an established profile. With few exceptions, traffic in September for anything related to “Breaking Bad” or “Dexter” surpassed scribblings about new series. Far fewer people exhibited curiosity regarding the qualitative merits of “Sean Saves the World” or “Lucky 7.”

In a perfect world, publications would be able to accommodate both. Yet a journalistic landscape strafed by limited resources and dwindling staffs can’t always fight wars on multiple fronts, and it’s not farfetched to anticipate a day in the not-too-distant future where most broadcast shows are in the same boat as lesser cable titles — that is, virtually ignored, without much free media coverage to help stretch network marketing budgets.

Indeed, when traffic becomes the only barometer, it may eventually make more sense to write about every episode of hit shows — or even modestly viewed ones blessed with rabid cult followings — than to bother devoting limited time to questionable newcomers.

The rich, in other words, get richer, and the marketing department’s job gets tougher.

The second point of tension has to do with ratings. The broadcast networks took the extraordinary step this year of banding together to present reporters with a collective plea — namely, please don’t write off new programs prematurely, but rather wait and let delayed DVR viewing and other information trickle in.

The message was clear: With so many alternatives for consuming content, it’s short-sighted to draw sweeping conclusions based on that initial burst of fast-national ratings the next morning. A more complete picture — with everything from deferred viewing to more detailed psychographic data — now requires a couple of weeks.

But honestly, who has the time or patience for that?

Three weeks into the new season, the impulse remains to pronounce hits and misses, winners and losers, at the earliest possible moment. (Of course, old habits die hard: The networks remain quick on the trigger too — issuing press releases touting their programs’ successes, while sounding like Hoover in “Animal House” regarding the disappointments, insisting midterms will really pick up their grades.)

Simply put, the fast-paced Web abhors a vacuum, and has relatively little patience for qualifiers or disclaimers. So while your show might get an unexpectedly big DVR bump, a la something like FX’s “The Bridge,” by the time that happens, most of us will have already praised or buried it and moved on.

Besides, if a story happens to be wrong or premature, well, that’s why they invented the term “write-through,” isn’t it?

This dizzying need for speed brings to mind a former editor at the Los Angeles Times, who — being a neophyte to the TV beat — wanted to know what time that night we could expect overnight ratings, hoping to include viewers’ thumbs-up or down verdict in a feature running the next day. She appeared crestfallen, or at least baffled, when it was explained we’d have to wait until the following morning — hence the term “overnight” — for actual numbers to arrive.

In that case, mercifully, incomplete information forced us to exercise a modicum of patience. But that was then. This is now.

Networks, meanwhile, appear slightly exasperated by the evolving nature of news-outlet behavior, which no longer is following their preferred timetables. Yet they can perhaps derive a small measure of vindication by realizing it’s only because media know-it-alls — forced to operate under a daily scorecard much like their own, instead of trusting instincts and judgment — are gradually becoming just like them.