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Which TV Shows Are Hits? Who Even Knows Anymore?

It's not just a matter of who watches anymore: it's where, when, how, and maybe even how much they tweet

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Sleepy Hollow is one new show whose ratings got a big boost from DVR viewers. But not all viewers are counted equally.

It’s October, a few weeks into the 2013-14 TV season, which means we’re asking which new TV shows are hits. Except, these days, that requires defining some terms. What is a “hit”? What is “new”? What, even, is “TV”?

It used to be simple: TV networks made money one way, by selling ads. How much money they made depended on if you watched their shows the night they aired. If enough people did that: welcome to Hitsville! You might fudge a bit and call a modestly-rated show a hit, but at least the metrics were universal and simple.

As advertising rates began to be set on demographics–that is, a few rich young viewers made you more money from Madison Avenue than a lot of old poor folks–the economics of TV became more complicated. Now, thanks to vast changes in how people watch and pay for TV, “hit” is a more nebulous term than ever. If you define a “hit” as a show that a lot of people watch, that’s more complicated to measure (and in some ways impossible). If you define a “hit” as a show that makes a lot of money (which in the end is what keeps shows on the air), there are many more ways to make money, and to lose it.

Which means that, as we see the first attempts to pick the “winners” and “losers” of the new season, they come with a lot of qualifications as to what that even means:

* When You Watch It. How many people watched The Crazy Ones or Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD? Depends how long you’re willing to wait to find out. As Brian Stelter notes in the New York Times, the morning-after ratings we’re used to getting from Nielsen are now just the opening act; thanks to DVRs, many of us watch our shows days or even weeks later. (As I’ve said before, Sunday night is now the Costco of TV drama, when people load up their DVRs with material to consume over the week.)

Networks, therefore, are increasingly trying to spin their “live plus seven ratings,” or the number of people who watch shows either as they air, or up to a week after. (A week? How about months?) For some shows, live-plus-seven can double their ratings or more. Only problem: advertisers still only pay ad rates on the basis of three days’ worth of viewing (on the argument that DVR users may skip ads, or some ads may become outdated over time). Which raises the chance that a show could be a “hit” in terms of viewers but not in terms of viewers who watch in time for the network to make money off them.

* How You Watch It. If technology has cannibalized live ratings in some ways, networks are praying that it can also enhance and encourage live-TV watching. This week, Nielsen announced plans to measure how many people are posting and reading tweets about TV shows on Twitter.

Why should that matter to networks or advertisers? Uh, good question. In some cases, the social-media watercooler has seemed to encourage live-TV viewing, driving up ratings for big live events like awards shows. But the old-fashioned Nielsen ratings already measure live viewing. There’s an argument that viewers who are watching and tweeting are more “engaged” with shows and ads. But even if you accept that that’s not a total load of hoo-hah, I’ve heard too many attempts by networks to convince advertisers to pay more for “engaged” audiences to believe this pitch will work any better.

But I could see where Twitter ratings might matter. It could be a sign, for instance, of a show that’s not a hit yet, but has momentum to become one. ABC’s Scandal, for instance, grew steadily to the point where, in season 3, it’s one of ABC’s biggest successes, and its cultivated buzz on social media (helped by fervent tweeter Shonda Rhimes) may well have helped. Also, while I’m not sure advertisers will care about Twitter engagement, subscription outlets like Netflix and HBO might–they want viewers who don’t just watch casually but care deeply enough about shows to pay for them, and Twitter power might help them measure that.

* Where You Watch It. Speaking of Netflix, there’s a whole new area of uncertainty. House of Cards got a bunch of Emmy nominations. Arrested Development got an avalanche of publicity. Orange Is the New Black was a critical darling. How many people watched them? No one outside Netflix knows, and Netflix has no plans to ever tell you.

But plainly, in some way, streaming (and other ancillary ways of watching like iTunes and–for the old-school–DVDs) is the dark matter of TV watching today, not properly quantified yet exerting undeniable gravitational pull. When Breaking Bad returned for its final season, its ratings doubled. Its finale had over 10 million viewers–more than seven times the viewership of its 2008 premiere. Those people didn’t come from nowhere; some may have caught up with the show through reruns, others through DVDs, but most likely a lot of them binged the show on Netflix before its final run. Then, all at once, they knocked.

In other words, that next big hit of the new season may already be out there. We just don’t know who’s watching it yet.