In November of 2011, the single-camera sitcom ‘Community’ was pulled off of the air in the middle of its third season and put on a hiatus. This was due to its increasingly poor ratings performance, only ever averaging about 3.8 million viewers in something called the Nielsen rating system.
In 2013, series creator and show runner, Dan Harmon, was fired from the show, and pinch-hitter show runners David Guarascio and Moses Port – of ‘Just Shoot Me’ fame – were brought in to helm the show’s fourth season. After that didn’t go so well for the network (tanked ratings again), in a miraculous and unprecedented decision, NBC and Sony rehired Dan Harmon for a fifth season. Although fans loved it, and it was a great return to form for the show, it still didn’t perform well for the network.
Now, in May of 2014, NBC has finally axed ‘Community.’ It’s a sad day for fans, cast, crew, and creator Dan Harmon. But it’s also indicative of a larger problem.
The Nielsen system installs tracking boxes in 20,000 specially selected homes, monitors their viewing habits – accounting for factors like age, sex, race and geographic location – and averages that out to a larger scale number such as ‘Community’s’ 3.8 million. It’s based mostly on live viewing and doesn’t factor in DVR views past 3 A.M. of the airdate, views on streaming websites like Hulu or on-demand/download clients such as iTunes. This system functioned generally well under the old regime of viewers gathering around the set during preordained time slots, but we haven’t watched TV that way for many years now.
Although ‘Community’ was put back on the air on March 15, 2012, it was only green-lit for a thirteen episode fourth season, and moved to a less lucrative time slot.. These are the sorts of well-intentioned tactics set forth by the networks to try and drive the ratings of a show – a tactic that, once again, sometimes worked well for them in the days of “Must See TV” and live viewing as an only option – but without an accurate understanding of who is actually watching the show, they are only exacerbating the problem and alienating all of the fans. The problem is not the creatives behind the shows; it’s the archaic, dubious and broken Nielsen system that hasn’t been relevant since the dawn of broadband and streaming content.
The truth is, whether or not one thinks it deserves to keep airing, ‘Community’s’ viewership is most likely well above this extremely tentative 3.8 million number when considering the platforms ignored by Nielsen like Hulu, iTunes, Netflix and DVR.
Experts argue that numbers such as Hulu views and iTunes downloads aren’t exactly viable or relevant to ratings at this point; as John Herman explains in this Splitsider.com article on the subject:
“Absent from these ratings, and most others, are types of viewing that serious TV fans – and especially comedy lovers – are well acquainted with: Netflix, Hulu, iTunes and even on-demand cable viewing don’t count toward the ratings totals, either because they don’t have ads at all, or because the ads shown differ from the ones shown during initial broadcast. A show with 10 million weekly Hulu viewers and one million live viewers is only slightly better than a plain one-million-viewer show, in terms of revenue.”
But this stance avoids the real issue, which is that all the alternative forms of viewing need to be taken more seriously by the mainstream, and the ad-space and ratings tracking need to be unified across all platforms. If we get the same commercials on Hulu, Netflix and iTunes that we are getting on NBC, we wouldn’t have this problem with incompatibility of those views with the overall system.
The ones responsible for doling out demographic projections need to rethink their models, and start looking at the much more ahead-of-the-curve ad monetization models of places like YouTube and Hulu. In fact, according to Nielsen’s (2012) own Global Trust in Advertising Survey 36% of consumers said they trusted online video ads – 33% percent said they trusted online ads as a whole, which is a 7% improvement since 2007 – while trust in network TV ads has declined 24% since 2009. The level of integration hasn’t caught up to these numbers because the importance of alternative viewing hasn’t been explained to the advertisers that pay for the shows.
The networks and other companies will argue that viewers will never go for this; iTunes and Netflix are pay services, and no one will tolerate having to watch ads on something they’re forking over money for. This is a legitimate criticism of the idea, and one can imagine a public outcry if they were to suddenly start employing this system. It’s a risky move, definitely, but consumers want to keep consuming the things that they like. If it could be explained to them that this is the most viable way for the shows that they like to keep being made – and that it is giving them a legitimate voice in the matter – I think the companies would be surprised to see the support.
Nielsen and other big-business ratings sources should examine these alternative systems, and their importance and functionality should be explained to the advertisers who control the money. This is the only way that perfectly good shows, with plenty of viewers that choose to do their viewing through different platforms than standard live network TV, will be able to stay afloat in an increasingly alienating viewing environment that has arisen from anachronistic rating methods.
Herman, J. (2011, January 31st). Why Nielsen ratings are inaccurate, and why they’ll stay that way. Splitsider.com. Retrieved May 9, 2014, from http://splitsider.com/2011/01/why-nielsen-ratings-are-inaccurate-and-why-theyll-stay-that-way/
Sewall, A. (2012, April 23rd). 36% of consumers trust online video ads. Videomind.com.Retrieved May 9, 2014, from http://videomind.ooyala.com/blog/36-consumers-trust-online-video-ads