Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Numbers Games


This time of year ratings numbers become all important to the TV industry. The Fall launch of new programming is closely scrutinized in every imaginable demographic category. American networks have invested millions in the new line-ups and they need to know who is watching.

Their Spring was spent assessing the zeitgeist in order to separate the successful pilots from the also-rans. Summer was comprised of endless days convincing countless advertisers that these were the shows that would appeal directly to their customers.

Now it's the moment of truth -- or time to launch hours of agonizingly contorted spin.

One of my shows, "Top Cops", was cancelled the morning after it debuted. The Overnights (which meter major urban markets in the US) came in and we were one million short of the number the ratings gurus at CBS had predicted. Pink slips for everybody involved were immediately dispatched. Down Tools. Go home. Don't even finish the scene you're currently shooting.

An hour later, the National ratings arrived and we were a million over the prediction. Frantic phone calls ensued to cancel the firings. By the end of the afternoon, after all the micro-demographics had been parsed we were picked up for the balance of a 26 episode season.

At that time we were running Thursday nights opposite "Cop Rock", NBC's great dramatic hope for the season. They lasted only a few weeks as we consistently improved our numbers, sometimes achieving a 25 share. Did that make us the cool new kids on the block?

Nope. A couple of weeks later, we were moved to battle "Cosby" and "The Simpsons" where our much less significant 13-15 share was considered a fair return for what the show cost to produce.

In their view, the few million viewers who weren't watching us anymore was more than offset by not having to develop shows which probably wouldn't do better against the two behemoths already dominating that timeslot. We saved money and time that could be better spent taking over the slot which the demise of "Cop Rock" had left wide open.

I've never understood the obsession the entertainment pages and gossip shows have with what numbers a specific series is getting. Nor do I understand the constant bragging that goes on in network press releases -- particularly those of the Canadian nets that don't have a damn thing to do with the creation or marketing strategy of most of the shows they're crowing about in the first place.

The fact that "Hawaii 5-0" wiped out the competition may be worthy of high-fives among the people who conceived and developed it or determined which night the bulk of its intended audience was available.  But it comes off as unseemly when all you did was outbid the competition for it. The Canadian PR process smacks of all those guys who buy a Van Gogh or Picasso and figure that proves they have sophistication and class.

You also have to be careful how soon you celebrate. I'm sure there are some anxious execs at HBO wondering if they pulled the trigger a little too soon on "Boardwalk Empire" since it was renewed for a second season after one episode and promptly lost 31% of its audience for episode two.

No. Ratings are primarily of importance to show creators and the people who buy and sell commercials. They tell the creatives what (good or bad) the audience is attracted to and advertisers how many in their desired groupings might not be skipping their commercials.

"X" Million viewers might sound impressive. But if your show's sponsor is trying to sell Mercedes SUVs and the people watching are under the age of 12, it's a complete waste of their money. And if that show was also intended to dissect the trials and tribulations of men going through mid-life crises for that demographic, the writers room might need to do some re-tooling.

To be sure, if a viewer likes a show, he might like to think his affection is shared by many others. But that isn't going to guarantee his favorite sticks around and it does nothing to enhance his viewing experience.

We all have shows we liked a lot that didn't stay around long. We all moved on -- except the fans of "Firefly" -- but that's another story.

No matter how many critics liked "Lone Star" this season, its numbers just weren't high enough for Fox to convince advertisers to cover its costs until the audience arrived in the promised numbers. US nets have to rebate their fees for audience no shows and the "Lone Star" rebate was going to be huge.

The case in favor of that show continuing gets even more untenable when some of the critics now admit it wasn't really that good, but they had to help the industry save face and couldn't say that the whole season was a write-off.

In the words of one critic who recommended "Lone Star" but then moments after it super-nova'd said…

lone review

No wonder audiences aren't paying as much attention to TV critics as they used to…

However, these days, even bad numbers don't mean a show will automatically disappear. And in some cases, you don't even have to be on the air yet to get renewed for another season.

"Friday Night Lights" struggled to find an audience from the get-go, with little more than critical acclaim to shepherd it through its first season. Most of its cast and crew probably booked stand-by tickets out of Austin for the morning each week's ratings came in. But somehow, for somebody, at some level it was worth keeping around.

So while NBC continued to axe series with much better numbers, it also kept finding ways to keep "FNL" alive. Next month it begins its fifth season on the Direct TV 101 Network, repeating later on NBC.

FNL's audience may be small but they buy tractors or satellite dishes or something and that's what really pays the freight. Or somebody at NBC just likes getting invites to the Peabody and Humanitas Award dinners.

It's not always about who or how many are watching.

And that's particularly true in Canada.

Last week, "Call Me Fitz" debuted its first episode on HBO Canada the day before it went into production on Season 2. That's right. Renewed sight unseen by an audience.

It's not that its network isn't concerned with whether or not its subscribers are entertained by the show. But that concern is weighed against the extra political points and future government fund investments that HBO Canada gains by keeping around a show that is filmed in a particular region of the country or is staffed at a certain diversity level or meets some other un-related to the product criteria.

If it keeps checking off those boxes on its government scorecard, "Call me Fitz" (or "Donnie Darko" meets "Breakfast of Champions" as its known around my house) could go on until Jason Priestley's grandchildren are featured on the virtual reality reboot of "90210".

The same story is true for a lot of Canadian series. "Little Mosque on the Prairie" was attracting 20% of its first season viewership at the end of last year. But it got one more kick at the can. And even though "Being Erica" has a continuously softening audience base, CBC still acts like it's got a massive hit on its hands.

And our own Press continues to fan the flames of non-excitement by deathlessly reporting hits and flops. "Shattered" debuts on Global to 400,000 viewers and is branded a failure. Days later, "Lost Girl" attracts an audience of 400,000 on Showcase and is declared a massive hit.

Same number of viewers, so what made the difference?

In a throwback to the days of Free-to-Air networks with massive reach and niche Cable Specialty channel offerings, Global was considered to have a much larger reach and therefore access to far more viewers than Showcase. Ergo more potential viewers not translating equals failure.

And to some degree that's still the case. Although the gap between the two broadcast groups is narrowing and the viewing habits of Canadians have already made the Specialty channels much more profitable than their larger cousins.

But 400,000 is still 400,000. Is that the new Million in Canada?

Instead of trying to view those numbers through the multiple prisms of network publicists, try thinking of them in a different context.

Think of 400,000 as the entire population of Kitchener, Ontario watching one or both of these shows -- maybe even really enjoying them -- while every other person in every other city, town and rural farmhouse across the entire length and breadth of the country is watching something else.

400,000 doesn't seem so noteworthy anymore, does it?

And that comparison makes why we put what we put on the air here make even less sense when you consider that "The George Stromboulopoulos Show" (which the CBC markets with half page color ads in all the National newspapers) often garners an audience less than the 157,000 population of Barrie, Ontario.

How many people is George really reaching if they could all live in Barrie? Would they maybe enjoy the show more if he interviewed more guys who like ice fishing and fewer politicians partial to the CBC?

But, of course George's audience is spread over millions of square miles. Makes you consider how often you run into somebody who says they're from Barrie, doesn't it?

My point is -- what's the country-wide benefit of a series seen by only a handful of people in every population center -- how can those handfuls ever hope to create a groundswell of interest in anything, no matter how many facebook friends and Tweet followers they have.

Truth be known, the lion's share of the viewers tuning in to "Republic of Doyle" on a regular basis reside in the show's home province of Newfoundland, with barely anybody West of Winnipeg giving it the time of day.

What good are the "Doyle" numbers to the national artistic health of the country, let alone anybody not selling something avidly purchased in the Maritimes? How much of those CBC budget shortfalls could be made up if the programming attracted advertisers actually able to reach a real national audience?

And that same warped way our ratings numbers don't really reflect the audience is true on all our networks. A guy buying commercials to sell Italian sandwiches via his local TV station in Thunder Bay probably doesn't realize that the bulk of those watching that city's "A" channel actually live in Regina.

This summer in BC, I was bewildered by History channel's repeated ads for Marineland in Niagara Falls. Trust me, these guys do not need to drive 4000 clicks to see a whale!

Ratings numbers have always had a nebulous feel to them, compiled as they are by sample groups and metering devices that can't tell if you're napping or sitting with your back to the TV while you play Scrabble with the kids.

But the bigger concern for Canadian show makers and networks should be that even in that predictably unpredictable world American shows regularly garner 4 or 5 times (sometimes 10 times) larger audiences than anything we create. Okay, only 2 times if you're making "Flashpoint".

Yet, while the week three numbers of "Lost Girl" fell to less than half what they were in Week one, nobody set about reworking the show to save it. They couldn't. The entire first season had been in the can for months. It had to be to meet government funding deadlines.

And if that show should fall to five figure audiences by season's end, that might not make any difference to its future either. Their renewal will be based less on audience response than what costs still need to be amortized, or what region it can be relocated to, or something else that has nothing to do with either quantifiable success or a satisfied fan base.

Numbers here mean nothing. Except for this…

They continue to convince our audience that we can't make shows they actually want to watch and that their input is absolutely not required.

And the numbers of those people will keep building until we take their needs alone into account.


Rusty James said...

The good news is I caught a screening of FUBAR 2, and I'm happy to report it's just as hilarious as the first.

Anonymous said...

" comes off as unseemly when all you did was outbid the competition for it."

Bingo. The unmitigated arrogance of Global, CTV and CITY is beyond ridiculous when it comes to trumpeting "their" success.

The worst that can ever happen if they buy a full year of a crap show is that they'll have even more filler to stuff on their half dozen other channels.

Since I'm pretty sure you get some readership from this group, I'll tell them here: your "network" is only a channel number for me to tune to. There is no "brand". There is no "loyalty". And never forget: I don't, EVER, need to watch a show on your channel, when you want me to watch it.

There are always options, and since you never play nice...don't expect viewers to, either.

The problem the 'merican nets seem to have is that there is too much "swinging for the fences" and not enough "small ball". In other words, as you pointed out, they change shows too often and only get a modest increase in eyeballs, just to "win". Why not "play to tie" every so often and see what happens?

I mean, if "Smallville" can go on for a decade...

Trevor B. Cunningham said...

All Canuck TV is, is an expensive form of Youtube.

DMc said...

Basically, yes, the Canadian ratings do not matter. For the private nets, they have no bearing on whether they renew or not, and for the CBC they only matter when they say they matter. If a show is protected, then they don't matter at all.


Now that we're in the bad new days of them getting reported, what bugs me is that they are NEVER given the right context, because how the data is collected, disseminated, etc, is so poorly understood.

Also, let's face it, unless it comes from a network press release, Journos are getting the numbers from somebody who gets the numbers. So they're reporting hearsay and not confirming it themselves, because they don't get the numbers from BBM directly.

Example:  CBC claims it's the 2nd most watched network.  Andrew Ryan pooh poohs it because its shows were clearly in fourth place last week.  But the CBC didn't say last week.  Someone once upon a time explained to me the metric they were using and how the numbers came out that way, and it was sound, but with those provisos.  So, a) the CBC is trying to slide one by (or they're not...maybe the wider more inclusive metric they were using is more appropriate for a place that has to claim to serve all Canadians)  but Ryan et al are also being stats-dumb by saying, "um, no you're not" and using oranges as proof to refute the CBC's apples.  In this case I think CBC is probably using "year round" -- they do do better in the summer, and hockey of course.

In the USA, shows that drop 25% from their lead ins are called "failures" -- and they have the stats on how that slot did a year ago sewn up.

When I was at an event with BBM last year, I asked why they didn't publish a list of the top 20 Canadian programs -- whatever their numbers were. They have the data. Why not mine it?  The guy bumbled an answer & didn't answer it.  

The main bone I had with your article Jim was what I said to you once before, putting that false equivalency between 400 on Showcase and 400 on Network - b/c mainly that ratio/split exists in the States too. It's about reach & households, 4 million for cable vs 20 million bcast, or whatever.

The bottom line is, and I believe this wholeheartedly, is that in the USA you have the nets trying to spin the numbers every day.  (in fact one of the sites actually reports it that way, "so and so spins the numbers") but there are tons of smart people looking at that data and saying, "not so fast," or "here's what it really means."

In Canada, it seems to me that the only time Journalists use numbers is to "prove" the premise of the article they're trying to write.  (CBC is reaching more than ever, CBC is in last place, CTV is tops, Canadian TV doesn't get watched, etc.)  There is no difference between the network spinning and the journos writing -- there is no quality control, there is no analysis -- there's spin upon spin, which just leads to a new level of bullshit and obsfucation and -- as you put it - -the "numbers game."

And then, at the end of the day? They don't matter. They're distractions.   
One really wrote smart stuff about the numbers and what they meant, would really be an eyeopener in Canada.  But that would require research and smarts.

When you start with a premise you will always find the numbers you need to support it.  The only way to report that stuff is to start with the numbers first. And that just does not happen in Canada, EVER.

Anonymous said...

When you start with a premise you will always find the numbers you need to support it.

This was actually one of my previous job descriptions: boss would give a number, I justified it. We never lied, per se. We just didn't pay much truck to contrary talk. We "threw the snowball at the wall, then drew the target around what we hit", so to speak.

Of course, most of the general populace, and especially journalists, are innumerate to an alarming degree. Funny, isn't it, that illiteracy is thought of as being incredibly socially tragic, but people practically brag about being bad at math.

There is actual a great website out there that explains basic stats to journalists. Apparently, it doesn't get enough hits. Most of them can barely do a normal % variance correctly.

As the saying goes in the legal profession, if you have a case, pound the case. If you don't, pound the table.

What you see, and hear, is a great deal of table pounding.

Or, as another saying goes, statistics are like bikinis: what they show are never as interesting as what they conceal.

wcdixon said...

A good example of Canadian TV network 'math' here:

And a good explanation of how and why networks can take critic love of a show too much to heart here, yet in US the numbers still trump: