Craig Engler from Syfy wrote an excellent article about the reality of television ratings, online viewership, DVRs, DVDs and even piracy – and why shows get canceled. I think it should be required reading before anyone complains about how “their” shows get canceled.
Now, I have questioned at times how Nielsen selects its 20,000 “families”. A long time ago we were selected as a test family. We had to fill out the logs manually for a week. At the end of that, we were told we were not the “type” of family they were looking for. Um…we watched plenty of TV that week, so I don’t know what they were looking for, but it sounded fishy. If the families are not selected truly randomly, then I think at some level the ratings will be skewed. 20,000 also seems like an awfully small number – but the TV networks, Nielsen and the advertisers seem to think it is enough, and we have to live with it.
The fact is, if we want a show to succeed, ANY show, we need to generate buzz about it. We need not only for ourselves to watch it, but get others to do so as well. If the buzz is about, the mysterious Nielsen families will hear about it, and hopefully tune in as well. Most importantly it’s got to be a good, interesting show that will not only get them to tune in, but stay tuned in. And watching on TV is more important than online, and watching live is more important than on a DVR. TiVo has changed forever how we watch TV, and the networks and studios are still catching up – and unless and until they find a new funding model (or a completely new business model), primary advertising still rules. You can’t skip ads in live TV. You can if you are delaying it.
Remember, the advertisers pay the bulk of a television show’s production costs, through the network. If advertisers don’t think people are watching the ads, then they aren’t going to pay.
Is a network canceling a show the end? Not exactly. The network does not produce the show. A production studio actually produces it. They can continue to produce it. But to pay for it, they need someone to fund it. The primary source of that funding is the network that will air it, who in turn gets that money from selling the advertisements. Other funding sources can come from online (if not also done by the network), future DVD sales, international distribution, etc. – but those sources are relatively small in comparison.
So when a network cancels a show, that is a loss of the primary funding, and the other sources can’t bear the whole burden. They can shop the show to another network, which is occasionally successful, but rarely lasts long. If one network cancels the show because the viewership wasn’t there and therefore they couldn’t get enough advertising dollars to pay for it, why would another network be able to do better? Often times there is a lot of negotiation that takes place, budgets reduced, etc. Cutting a budget rarely ever helps a show. However, if the DVD sales, money from which typically go directly to the studio, is strong, that could make up for a loss in direct revenue from a network.
SF shows, especially “space-based” shows, are typically very expensive to produce. So that generally requires a lot of advertising dollars. That can work against an SF show’s favor – it may need better ratings to survive compared to, say, a legal drama that doesn’t have huge special effects or location shooting. That’s why there is no “red line” in ratings – fall below the line, you are done – because it is different for every show.
For a while, the independent station syndicated market was the haven for SF and fantasy programming. Hercules, Xena, Andromeda, Babylon 5 (which was part of a pseudo-network but still had some syndication involved as well) and others survived fairly well out there. I’m not certain, but I think at a certain level it was possible to get more production money selling into syndication because you are selling to individual and small groups of stations, which might pay a little more directly for the program than a large network might pay on a per station basis – kind of like selling individual units at a retail price vs. buying in bulk. Unfortunately the direct syndication market has dried up, with more broadcast networks taking over local stations and the increasing relevance of major cable networks. Right now, a quick check shows that I don’t seem to have ANY independent local station available to me, although a couple are affiliates of minor networks like RetroTV and MyTV, and show old programming most of the time. Another is a sister station to a major network.
Eventually television programming and the business as we know it will change. The direction it will take is uncertain, but it has to change to survive. Technology changed faster than the producers and networks anticipated, so they are trying to play catch-up – and while they do, if there is programming we want to survive, we need to play old-school, and watch it the old fashioned way. Use all this new technology, especially the social networks, to spread the word and get others watching as well.