When Arrested Development was cancelled back in 2006, I remember multiple bloggers and web critics shaking their collective heads and wondering how a show that was so popular, so buzzy, so ubiquitous, somehow hadn’t collected any viewers. I even read the phrase “Everyone I know watches it,” which (for once) didn’t sound like bubble mentality or entitled whining; it did seem like everyone I knew watched it, and everyone I read, and everyone I listened to. But the problem is this: those people don’t have anything to do with “the ratings,” because the ratings are working off a model that’s roughly a decade out of date.
The most important (yet strangely under-discussed!) thing to know about the Nielsen ratings, which determine what appears on your television, is this: they don’t actually measure viewers. What they do, boiled down to its essence, is take a sampling of what people are watching, and apply that to the audience at large — so when you read somewhere that, say, Community has less than three million viewers, that’s not actually based on anything concrete, like some sort of monitoring of all the television viewers. It’s based on the roughly 25,000 households that have a “Nielsen box,” which monitors their viewing habits, and applies those 25K viewers to everybody else.
Do you have a Nielsen box? I don’t. You know who does? People who actually watch television live, not on a DVR, not on Amazon, not on Hulu, not in their dorms. In other words, people in their forties and up. And thus, when you look at the highest-rated shows on television in terms of total viewers, you come up with two very clear patterns: shows that have a “now” factor (i.e., sports and competition shows like American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, and The Voice), and shows geared towards older audiences (mostly CBS procedurals). There are a few exceptions (like The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family), but for the most part, the shows that get “good ratings” are the shows made for an audience that the Nielsen model was built for. “The average age of an old media television viewer on the networks is over 50,” as Dustin Rowles wrote last month for Pajiba. “The only people who still watch television live, without DVRs and on actual television sets are old people, so the only viewers’ habits being recorded by Nielsen are old people’s.”
And what’s particularly odd about this trend is that the exact opposite demographic is the one television advertisers are supposed to be so interested in: the lucrative 18-49 demo. But there’s the problem: they’re not actually watching television with high-dollar commercials in it. They’re either DVRing (and thus fast-forwarding through the ads), or they’re watching Hulu, which have entirely different spots. I can’t speak for everyone in that wide range, but here’s what I know from my own experience: we “cut the cord” last year because of the stupid high cost of cable and Internet service in New York, and now watch all of our TV on Hulu Plus, with a couple of exceptions (shows not on Hulu, like Mad Men, or on an untenable delay to that service, like Louie, we buy ala carte from iTunes). We never miss an episode of on-the-bubble shows like Community, 30 Rock, Parks and Rec, Bob’s Burgers, and Parenthood. But because nobody in the television industry can figure out how the hell to even count how many of us are watching via new media formats, we literally don’t count.
And if they can’t figure out how to count us, they sure as hell can’t figure out how to market to us. Week in and week out, we see the same Hulu ads for Geico, Emiriates, Chevy Volt, and Five Hour Energy Drink over and over and over again. And while they’re indescribably annoying (seriously, that energy drink spot looks like it was shot for fifty bucks back in 1994), did you see what just happened? I remembered the product being sold on all of them. Because while you can turn down the volume, what you can’t do is skip past them. We are a captive audience, and we’re going to waste. And because they can’t figure out how to manipulate new media and how to adjust the ratings and marketing playbook in such a way that both reflects the real audience and speaks to them, good, daring shows like Community risk cancellation year by year, month by month, sometimes week by week.
So, one hand, it’s scary that Community is going to Friday night with an incompatible lead-in. On the other hand, maybe that doesn’t matter, since the audience of pop-culture addicts and cheerful geeks that it speaks to will watch it in their own way and on their own time anyway. It worked for Fringe on Fox, and hey, the uninspiring numbers that Community is getting on Thursdays would be pretty impressive on the wasteland that is Friday. The question is: how do we convince the network and the advertisers that we’re out there?