TV Critics Explain What Nielsen’s New Streaming Ratings Mean for Our Favorite Shows

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Nielsen, the company that monitors TV ratings, has announced that it will alter its rating system to factor in the many viewers that are watching TV shows away from the TV set. By changing the way it will collect ratings, Nielsen finally seems to be acknowledging the increasing significance of streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon – as well as gaming devices that support television like the X-Box and Playstation, also to be counted. The development is expected to come into effect later this year in September.

With so many viewers — especially younger ones — eschewing live TV for streaming services, which have also begun to produce their own original programming (including Netflix’s high-profile series House of Cards and upcoming Arrested Development revival), Nielsen’s tweaking of its ratings could make a huge difference in determining which TV shows will survive. Could the new ratings system save series that do well critically but have meager ratings to show for it, such as NBC’s beloved Parks and Recreation and Community, and now Fox’s The Mindy Project? Before we jump the remote in excitement, we asked three venerable TV critics – the LA Times‘ Meredith Blake, Slate‘s June Thomas, and the A.V. Club‘s Todd VanDerWerff – what they think Nielsen’s new rating system could mean for television, and the shows they’d most like to be saved.

Flavorwire: How do you think Nielsen’s changing ratings system will impact TV shows that have had poor ratings and are at risk of cancellation? Shows like New Girl and The Mindy Project, for example.

June Thomas: I don’t think we can really know what the effect will be. Like many people, I am dubious that the sampling method can still offer an accurate sense of how many people are watching any particular show. I’m also aware that I tend to generalize from my own experience. If I and everyone I socialize with are all watching one particular show and it does badly in the ratings, my first response is to think that the ratings are wrong. But maybe my friends are atypical. Maybe it’s regional or limited to one or a few segments of the population. And I notice how many young(ish) people go home for the holidays and talk (well, tweet) about how their parents are watching all the CBS shows that draw a lot of total viewers but ‘no one they know’ watches! […] Obviously, a lot of people watch a lot of shows via streaming platforms. But I want to know that the way those methods are being measured are accurate and effective, too. Nielsen’s system seems outdated, but what’s the alternative? I know some people say we should just take info from DVRs, but that’s just another segment of the population. There are still 50 percent (or so) of the US that doesn’t have a DVR.

Todd VanDerWerff: New Girl‘s going to be renewed, no problem, so I wouldn’t worry about that! Also, I doubt there will be a marked shift. I suppose there’s a chance that some shows that air on Fridays are getting less live-viewing than they get total viewing, but on most other nights of the week, there’s usually some sort of predictable relationship between people who watch live and people who time-shift. My best guess is that we’ll just find out that the shows people already watch a lot of are also the shows they time-shift. I mean, we already count at least some streaming viewers in Live+3 and Live+7 numbers, and there’s rarely a huge shift between those who watch live and those who stream. It just adds viewers, and usually proportionally.

Meredith Blake: Nielsen wouldn’t be bothering with this unless there was significant money to be made. That alone suggests to me that networks and other content providers and distribution channels (Netflix, etc.) will be taking this very seriously and that, yes, it will have a major influence on programming decisions. Otherwise, why do it? […] I think the shows it’s most likely to help are… those with younger viewers who tend to watch television on their own terms — often not on an actual television set, and sometimes weeks or months after an episode has aired. Much has been said lately about the joys of binge-watching, and I know that I tend to do this myself even with shows on ‘normal’ TV as opposed to Netflix — I’ll let episodes pile up in my DVR because it’s more enjoyable to sit down and watch 3 or 4 episodes at once. This could potentially give a boost to shows that are consumed in bite-sized pieces that spread virally – something like The Daily Show or SNL or even programming from news networks. […] Arrested Development was canceled shortly before Nielsen started tracking DVR viewership… But that is exactly the kind of show that something like this could (hopefully) save – something with a small but passionately devoted audience that’s just a little too out there, and a little too complicated for the average viewer to dive right in midstream.”

FW: What do you think this development in the ratings system says about the changing landscape of TV? Do you think that it could further change the ways we’re watching TV?

VanDerWerff: Definitely. I suspect this whole move is about the networks trying to monetize streaming options better than they are already. Advertisers won’t yet pay top dollar for streaming because they think the audience isn’t there like it is for live TV. But we’re very close to a tipping point where there will be a large audience for streaming (even if we’re years, if not decades, away from the streaming audience being larger than those who watch on their TV set, either live or on DVR). But if the networks can get advertisers to give them more money for streaming, then that’s a way to plug a hole in a business model that’s rapidly springing leaks.

Blake: Netflix probably knows more about me at this point than my own parents do just based on what I watch and where I live. It will be interesting to see how much personal information Hulu, Netflix, and other streaming services share with Nielsen (if they share anything at all) as part of their ratings service. The way ratings work now is basically an educated guess, but if networks were able to track viewers the way Amazon tracks consumers, that would be crazy. It suggests to me that there will be much more highly sophisticated ways of reaching and targeting specific viewers in the future, both in terms of content and advertising. Could be awesome, could be creepy. Probably both… it’s definitely a big deal, especially as more and more people migrate from their TV sets to their laptops, tablets and phones. It’s clear that Nielsen is anticipating more people will watch TV this way in the future.

Thomas: A few years ago, it became possible to watch TV legally via streaming. The Nielsens don’t currently take that into account. They should… However, most of the streaming services I use – Hulu, the networks’ sites — already serve up ads. Since the Nielsens… measure ad delivery, I wonder if adding streaming service numbers will bring down ad prices or have some other negative effect on the TV business. That’s not my area of expertise, however… There are still so many unknowns. Will those streaming views “count” as ad impressions when for the most part the entities running ads are different?

FW: Are you optimistic that this change will save shows that are critically acclaimed but don’t necessarily have a strong audience yet from cancellation? Which shows do you hope might be rescued by this development?

VanDerWerff: No. If you look around the TV landscape, every year there’s lots of terror that good shows will be cancelled, but for the most part, if a show can make it through a full season and has some sort of critical/fanbase support, then it gets renewed. For instance, Happy Endings is very much on the bubble, but I more or less expect it to be renewed because it has lots of passionate fans and critical support. (Also, its network likes it, which is helpful.) About five years ago, the networks realized they were slowly dying, but one way to make money was to program to niches of fans who really liked a certain program. That’s why things like Chuck and Community have stuck around as long as they did, and I continue [to think] that to mostly be the case going forward. So I don’t really think that adding in more streaming viewers will help tons.

Thomas: It makes sense to me that shows aimed at younger, hipper, online streamier, iPaddier people will benefit, but that is not dispositive… I hope that Bunheads, Body of Proof, The Neighbors survive, but I don’t think those shows are ones that will get a big boost from streaming viewing. I suspect it’s networks like The CW that will see their numbers rise.

Blake: I would love it if this could save New Girl, which has almost filled the 30 Rock-shaped hole in my heart, though I am not convinced that show is on the chopping block just yet despite its ratings slide. The only show that I feel super passionately about these days with respect to its cancellation is Enlightened, which I absolutely adore and which is very, very much in danger. But what’s interesting is that’s a show that probably wouldn’t be helped enormously by tracking streaming. That might bump the numbers up a little, but not enough to turn it into a hit. HBO is a network that, because it can, cares more about buzz and awards. For reasons I can’t quite explain, Enlightened doesn’t have much of either. Which is too bad because it is wonderful.