It's not that every new show is a hit. It's just harder to figure out what a hit is nowadays.
We’re a month into the official fall TV season, and the big news so far is… nothing. As in: nothing has yet been canceled. (I realize, of course, that I may shake loose the season’s first cancellation simply by typing these words.)
What’s happened? Have the broadcast networks finally perfected their art, discovering the unerring secret of delicious, addictive entertainment? No. As usual, there have been some out-of-the-box hits (How to Get Away With Murder, in particular). And there have been a few thundering disappointments (at Fox, especially, where Mulaney just had its episode order trimmed back while vultures are circling above the Utopia compound).
Yet the Reaper has been pokier this season than last year, when, for instance, Lucky 7 had already come up snake eyes by now. Part of the reason may simply be that networks had been so quick to reach for the hook over the past several years–when cancellations after two or three episodes became common–that the slightest restraint looks like mercy. And at NPR, Eric Deggans offers a few explanations–for instance, that networks have done better at protecting new shows with better scheduling.
But a big part of the explanation goes back to something you should keep in mind when following any TV-biz news today: Nobody knows what is a hit anymore. At least not right away, and maybe not for a long time.
There are different kinds of hits: shows that a lot of people watch, and shows that make a lot of money (two factors that can be, but are not automatically, related). For the purposes of cancellation, a hit means the latter. If a show makes money, or is likely to, it stays on the air.
But how a show makes money, and how can you tell, are more complicated questions than they used to be. You need to know the ratings, of course–specifically, the ratings in the age demographics that advertisers will pay for.
That’s not so easy anymore–even if Nielsen doesn’t screw up the ratings for months as it did earlier this year. With DVRs, viewers may watch a show live, or later the same night, or later that week. So you may not know how popular a show is for weeks after it airs, once you get the DVR ratings such as “live plus seven”–the number of viewers who watched a show within a week of its airing. Now advertisers don’t pay for all those viewers; generally, they pay for what they call “C3″–not the measure of viewers within three days but the measure of commercials watched within three days. (If you have any sense, you skip the ads on DVR, and if advertisers have any sense, they know that.)
And all that assumes the relatively simple world of broadcast TV. It’s even more complicated on cable (where revenues like carriage fees from cable providers factor in), pay-cable (where HBO and Showtime make money from subscriptions, not ads) and streaming (where Netflix will never tell you how many people watch its “hits”).
So we wait longer for the ratings. In the meantime, networks–to counter the impression that a show’s a bomb from its live ratings–have begun issuing “projected” time-shifting ratings, which you should no more take seriously than you would fill out an insurance form giving your “projected” blood pressure six months from now after you finally give up French fries and start going to the gym.
But wait, there’s more! TV ads are still the main way broadcast shows make money, but they’re not the only way. There’s also the smaller but growing amount of online streaming, which shows up nowhere in those DVR numbers. And besides possible future syndication, there’s also the possibility of the sale of a show to Netflix down the road–a potentially lucrative deal that can make a relatively low-rated show like New Girl stick around. DVR ratings a week later may not be worth anything for ad sales, but maybe they indicate a fanbase that can be monetized later through streaming sales, or overseas sales, or… something else someone will invent soon.
For now, we wait, deciding whether to commit to new shows, while the networks wait and parse a growing mound of data, trying to decide whether to make the same commitment. For some shows, this more complex TV business could mean a longer life, as they get a second season to prove their worth. For others, it may just mean a slower death. Bottom line, the more ways TV has to turn viewership into money, the more complicated it becomes to turn new shows into old memories.