Why the New Era of TV Ratings Means More of Your Favorite Shows Might Survive

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Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photo by ABC, FOX and Hulu

Networks will increasingly be okay with shows with narrower demographic targets.
When getting viewers to tune in immediately was pretty much the only way to succeed in TV, networks understandably put a premium on noisy, mass-appeal concepts and star-driven vehicles — anything to get you to watch right now. Those kinds of shows aren’t going away, but because aggregating big audiences right away has become far more difficult, networks are increasingly favoring shows that can draw a consistent audience among at least some significant demographic group, or those that perform particularly well on a specific platform. Fox’s horror-comedy series Scream Queens, for example, has a modest overall audience of barely 4 million viewers who watch via traditional TV or on a DVR. But it’s also the only show on the network (other than megahit Empire) currently averaging over 1 million viewers on each of these four platforms: Live TV, DVRs, video on demand (VOD), and streaming. Its overperformance on those latter two nearly doubles its overall audience to just under 8 million. Scream Queens also does amazingly well with young, rich female viewers under the age of 35, a demographic in demand among advertisers.

This doesn’t mean every programmer will suddenly start targeting young women or other more targeted demographic groups. The Big Four broadcast networks and larger cable channels such as AMC and FX still want to aim for huge numbers of viewers. Instead, the hope is that because ratings can now be measured, and monetized, over a much longer time frame, shows can amass enough viewers from within a smaller target to still end up with a significant overall rating. With Scream Queens, “We’re still talking to a very broad and sizable audience,” Fox TV Group chairman and CEO Dana Walden tells Vulture. “The challenge for us, and what we’re trying to process, is where different viewers are consuming our content …The good news is, when you look at viewership over a 30-day period, a lot of people are watching our shows.”

Emphasizing long-term, multi-platform ratings will strike some skeptics as a way for traditional networks to deflect attention from their shrinking market share. And there’s no doubt there’s a public-relations component involved: For years now, as Nielsen has struggled to keep up with changing audience habits, broadcast and cable outlets have had to endure screaming headlines and snarky tweets about big ratings drops. It’s not simply that such coverage hurts their feelings: The narrative that old-school linear TV is moments away from extinction spooks Wall Street, directly leading to declines in stock value — and indirectly boosting rivals such as Netflix and Amazon, who don’t have to worry about ratings because they simply don’t release data about who’s watching their shows. It’s one reason why Walden and Fox recently joined most big cable networks in deciding to no longer publicize those scary, oft-depressing overnight numbers. Skeptics dismissed the strategy as spin, but the fact is, digital platforms really are helping broadcast and cable networks to recapture a significant number of viewers who’ve simply decided to watch in different ways. “An entire generation of fans of our shows have been taught to watch ‘television’ on a variety of different platforms,” Walden says. “It doesn’t make sense for us to say those viewers don’t matter … For us, same-day measurement [is] no longer relevant.”

Performance on streaming platforms will matter more.
While DVR and VOD viewership are still hugely important, networks have seen significant spikes in ratings weeks after an episode of a show premieres due to the growth of streaming. This season, for example, ABC newcomer Quantico is proving to be a powerhouse among millennials who prefer streaming to live TV: The network says nearly 55 percent* of all under-35 adults who watched the first episode of the spy drama did so digitally. Over at Fox this season, a full 38 percent of the monthly audience for Bob’s Burgers comes from viewers who stream the show on Hulu or the Fox app. Because it can take up to six weeks for these streaming stats to come in, a network’s perception of how a show is performing can change dramatically. “You can go from being disappointed about a number that might seem pretty ‘meh’ to then saying, ‘Ah, okay, there they [the viewers] are,” says FX research chief Julie Piepenkotter, who’s even coined a phrase for the delayed gratification that comes from long-tail ratings: Datagasm.

Even though nonlinear viewership doesn’t always yield as much revenue as traditional telecasts, that doesn’t mean the newer platforms don’t have significant financial value (particularly when combined). Hulu viewership, for example, benefits some outlets doubly: Networks owned by Comcast, Disney, and 21st Century Fox are able to sell ad time on the service and they also own a portion of the company. “A show that performs particularly well on Hulu, while it falls outside of the Nielsen ratings, has great value to us because it’s building a powerful asset that we have a stake in,” Walden says.

Another factor in whether a show lives or dies these days: streaming that takes place long after a show ends a season (or even its entire network run). Beyond the money networks get from airing episodes on Hulu immediately after they premiere on TV, certain shows fetch big bucks by selling rights to full seasons to Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. A series that demonstrates an ability to play well on those platforms may not even need to worry about Nielsen numbers to survive, since that long-tail revenue will make up for lower ad rates on live TV. CBS was famously able to keep Under the Dome on the air for three years despite huge ratings declines because Amazon helped fund production in exchange for streaming rights.

Streaming (and linear) viewership in other countries is also playing a role in determining which shows get (and stay) on the air. CBS, for example, has proven adept at keeping so-so-rated series such as Hawaii Five-0 going for years because they happen to sell well in certain key international markets. “In addition to having so many ways of measuring shows, we also have so many ways of monetizing them now,” says Kelly Kahl, senior executive vice-president of CBS Primetime, adding the various profit centers and measurement tools “all play a part in” how programming decisions are made now. “They’re all puzzle pieces,” he says. “You want to assemble them correctly and get the most accurate picture you can of the overall performance of your show. Overnight numbers are the first indicator of how a show is doing, but we don’t pass as much judgment as we used to based on them.”

Serialized shows will become even more common.
Back when networks focused on same-day viewership and channel surfers often spontaneously decided to watch shows by flipping around the dial, procedurals such as Law & Order or CSI were favored because they had a low barrier to entry. Self-contained storytelling let a potential fan jump in or out of shows without having to worry about what had happened the previous week. The focus was on individual episodes. Today, it’s easy for anyone who hears great buzz about How to Get Away With Murder or Mr. Robot to quickly get caught up by streaming a few episodes, making it less important that episodes stand on their own. But it’s not just that networks are less worried about scaring off viewers with serialized shows. With many viewers now actively preferring to binge multiple episodes at once, continuing story lines actually become a selling point. “At a time when there’s infinite choice, we’re seeing some viewers who want to super-engage with one show over a period of time rather than juggle three or four shows at once,” one broadcast executive says. “They’re finding that if they watch in big bursts, they resonate more and are more enjoyable. This includes smaller bursts of current-season shows, too.”

Of course, this kind of viewing is among the most difficult to measure since it often takes place outside of even the extended monthlong time frame networks are now using to gauge a show’s popularity. But, as noted above, the secondary revenue streams from Netflix et al. give programmers more latitude in tolerating lower traditional ratings. It’s also worth noting that the shift toward serialized shows doesn’t mean procedurals will disappear. NBC, for example, has had great success the past three years with Dick Wolf’s Chicago-based trilogy of first-responder dramas (Fire, PD, and now Med). But unlike Wolf’s original Law & Order, the Chicago shows don’t shy away from serialized elements.

TV’s new math won’t be able to save every show.
For all the very real ways TV is changing, the shift away from next-day ratings isn’t about to usher in some sort of utopia where audience size doesn’t matter and TV shows are able to run 100 episodes based on little more than critical raves and amazing Twitter buzz. At least in the near term, ad-supported networks, both broadcast and cable, will continue to prefer programs that command big same-day ratings, if only because they represent the easiest path to profitability. “People who watch [the] same day and don't fast-forward through commercials … is what you actually get paid for,” one industry veteran notes.  By contrast, “Time-shifted viewing today is much more about trying to establish a show, brand building — and hoping to get paid somehow tomorrow.”

Likewise, there will still be shows networks decide to bail on quickly, without waiting to see if audiences catch on. A producer whose shows are constantly being evaluated by networks says broadcasters still regularly freak out when the morning ratings come in and shows don’t perform as expected. “We’re all saying overnight ratings don’t matter, but they’re still 100 percent coloring decisions about how much marketing support networks give a show and how seriously the network is going to stay behind it,” he says. “They’re still looking at overnights, and there’s still a level of panic when they’re low.” Indeed, network rhetoric about ratings and actual decisions about programming don’t always match. ABC yanked heavily hyped fall drama Wicked City just a few weeks after it launched; NBC cut back its order for freshman The Player after seeing just two weeks of expanded DVR viewing data. Some see hypocrisy in such moves, but one network veteran counters that, no matter how much ratings measurement evolves, some series simply won’t be worth the effort. “The bar is lower now,” he says, “but there’s still a bar.”

* An earlier version of this piece stated that nearly 40 percent of all under-35 adults watched the first episode of Quantico digitally. In fact, 55 percent did!

The Ratings Game is a weeklong series exploring what the new world of TV ratings means for your favorite shows.

As recently as the mid-2000s, measuring the popularity of a TV show was an incredibly uncomplicated proposition. Each morning, just before noon on the West Coast, the iconic research company Nielsen issued a report listing the previous evening’s most- (and least-) watched programs. The higher a series ranked on the list, the better. “You could just look at the numbers and say, ‘That show is worthy, and that show is not,’” one TV-industry veteran remembers. “It was a pretty simple formula.” But in a development that could prove to be good news for viewers, the calculus involved in determining success or failure for TV shows has grown infinitely more complex. The rapid rise of nontraditional viewing platforms such as Netflix and video on demand means networks now operate in a world where viewers increasingly wait days, weeks, or months to watch even their favorite shows. Must-See TV has given way to I’ll-Watch-When-I-Want-To TV, forcing networks to find new ways to measure — and profit from — how viewers consume their content today.  The upside for audiences: Shows that once might have suffered premature deaths due to low tune-in may now be able to hang on, and even thrive, in a universe no longer wholly ruled by the tyranny of instant Nielsen judgment. Here’s how the new ratings order is changing the way traditional TV networks do business — and changing what you’ll be watching: