May has always been a symbolic month in TV’s circle of life, signaling the introduction of newly ordered series and the cancellation of others. Yet the focus on what lives or dies has been clouded by the increasingly complicated means of measuring success, and by the Tower of Babel of criteria that networks choose to highlight — or in some cases, withhold.
Ratings serve two basic purposes. The most obvious and fundamental is to provide a foundation for negotiating ad costs. A secondary function is to offer a sense of a program’s cultural weight and popularity, an attribute the public can readily grasp when it’s presented as “12 million people watched.”
Although there’s more information than ever before, the splintering of platforms has allowed everyone to cherry-pick numbers that suit them. And while that reflects an evolving industry, the result is mass confusion when it comes to communicating whether a show, in crassly Darwinian terms, is strong enough to survive.
Granted, network research and publicity arms have always spun numbers to put the best face on things. But an expanding list of metrics — delayed viewing, streaming, impressions, engagement — has enabled some to obfuscate and sound as if their press releases aren’t even speaking the same language. Then there’s Netflix, which, having decided that sharing such data is irrelevant to its business model, has consistently dismissed calls to demonstrate its programming’s reach.
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If the late Brandon Stoddard, a network executive associated with massive hits like “Roots” and “The Thorn Birds,” once sported the license plate “40 share,” it’s hard to imagine the litmus test his modern-day counterparts would use. Good luck trying to condense “more than 5 million viewers, once you include all delayed and digital platforms on a same-day-plus-infinity basis” to seven characters.
The slippage in clear standards has muddied the waters in gauging a program’s viability, often leaving talent — who now have a direct megaphone to fans via social media — as confused as any layman about how well their shows are doing. Ownership considerations further complicate the issue: CBS can cite international sales of “Blue Bloods” because of star Tom Selleck’s global popularity, for example, putting a series with a decidedly non-Madison Avenue-friendly demographic skew in the profit column.
As participants noted during a recent Hollywood Radio & Television Society panel on audience measurement, Nielsen and comScore are seeking to quantify video use across TV and digital platforms. But for now, there are too many apples-and-oranges comparisons and generous readings of delayed viewing designed, say, to make Fox’s “Scream Queens” look like a hit, when by almost any conventional yardstick, it wasn’t.
Many consumers, meanwhile, are left to assume that if they feel passionate about a show — “You, Me and the Apocalypse” and “Togetherness” being recent examples — it deserves to continue, without regard to whether they have enough company to justify such an extension. It’s equally confusing when cable networks issue second-season renewals immediately after, and sometimes before, a show premieres, as if the grandeur of HBO’s “Vinyl” is such that it doesn’t really matter if anyone watches it (and in relative terms, not many have).
For all the change that’s happening measurement-wise, networks will still discard numerous shows next month, in traditional “Out with the old, in with the new” fashion. But the pushback from loyalists of those shows will be more ardent than ever, driven by an understandable belief, in this climate, that ratings are either part of a conspiracy or something bordering on witchcraft.
There’s been ample talk this campaign season about post-truth politics, but ratings are flirting with their own post-logic phase. And if the peasants appear restless as network TV engages in its annual spring cleaning, the industry has itself partly to blame for kicking up some of that dust.