By Tom Vanderbilt
Illustration by LAMOSCA
On February 7, the fourth season of Community kicked off on NBC. It was something of a shock that the show had survived for so long. It ranked 193rd among broadcast shows. In May 2012, series creator and showrunner Dan Harmon had been unceremoniously canned. And on the night it aired, the season premiere pulled in just 4 million viewers. That’s a mere quarter of the audience enjoyed by ratings juggernauts like Two and a Half Men or The Big Bang Theory. It even underperformed a rerun of the ABC reality show Shark Tank on the Nielsen charts.
Until recently, those 4 million viewers would have been the end of the story. Just a few years ago, similar niche favorites like Jericho and Firefly were summarily executed for such numbers. In fact, cult legend Freaks and Geeks averaged nearly 7 million viewers in its single, 1999-2000 season before getting canceled. But that night in February, Communityaccomplished something that none of those shows ever had the chance to do—it spawned two worldwide trending topics on Twitter.
All of your favorite shows are ratings dogs. Breaking Bad, Girls, Mad Men—each struggles to get a Nielsen score higher than 3, representing about 8.7 million viewers. And it’s not just cable. NBC’s 30 Rock struggled to top a score of 2.5, and Parks and Recreation rarely cracks Nielsen’s top 25. There are two possible conclusions to draw from these facts: (1) All these shows should be canceled, or (2) maybe the ratings are measuring the wrong thing. Since the 1970s, television has been ruled by the Nielsen Family—25,000 households whose TV habits collectively provide a statistical snapshot of a nation’s viewing behavior. Over the years, the Nielsen rating has been tweaked, but it still serves one fundamental purpose: to gauge how many people are watching a given show on a conventional television set. But that’s not how we watch any more. Hulu, Netflix, Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Roku, iTunes, smartphone, tablet—none of these platforms or devices are reflected in the Nielsen rating. (In February Nielsen announced that this fall it would finally begin including Internet streaming to TV sets in its ratings.)
And the TV experience doesn’t stop when the episode ends. We watch with tablets on our laps so we can look up an actor’s IMDb page. We tweet about the latest plot twist (discreetly, to avoid spoilers). We fill up the comments section of our favorite online recappers. We kibitz with Facebook friends about Hannah Horvath’s latest paramour. We start Tumblrs devoted to Downton decor. We’re engaging with a show even if we aren’t watching it, but none of this behavior factors into Nielsen’s calculation of its impact.
The Many Faces of Alison Brie. She can inhabit any role—and we’ll follow her anywhere. So we asked her which parts she was dying to play.
So far, advertisers don’t have a good way to track that viral activity. But many of them are willing to pay for it—even if the official Nielsen ratings don’t measure up. “It’s more about the social media zeitgeist of the program,” says Jackie Kulesza, a senior vice president at Starcom USA, which buys advertising time. 30 Rock, which managed to stay on the air for seven seasons despite perennially low ratings, “was very strong in this area.” That helps explain why Nielsen and others have been scrambling to generate a new kind of TV rating, one that takes into account all of the activity that occurs on screens other than a television. In November, Nielsen purchased SocialGuide, which analyzes “the social impact of linear television,” according to the company’s website. One month later, it announced a partnership with Twitter in an effort to devise a new social-TV rating, which will debut this fall. In February, Twitter itself purchased Bluefin Labs, a social-TV analytics company.
It all adds up to a potentially thrilling new era for television, one that values shows that spark conversations, not just those that hook us for 30 minutes. The stakes are high: Get it right and great programming will continue to thrive. Get it wrong and the $70 billion television industry is in jeopardy—and so is your favorite show.
In the years after its founding in Chicago in 1923, the A.C. Nielsen Company thrived, thanks to a commitment to math and technology. While its competitors called random households and asked them what they happened to be listening to on the radio at that moment, Nielsen developed more sophisticated sampling methods. Rather than rely solely on self-reporting, Nielsen employed a device called the Audimeter that used photographic tape to automatically record listening activity. When television arrived, Nielsen used similar meters for viewing—although they were supplemented with paper diaries. But by the late 1950s, Nielsen sat comfortably atop the media-ratings industry. It had few competitors, and since television habits remained static, it had little reason to keep innovating.
But the widespread adoption of the DVR in the mid-2000s roused Nielsen from its torpor. In 2007 the company hammered out its “C3″ rating, a metric that includes the number of people who watched a show—and therefore the commercials—up to three days after its original airing. (The company also came up with a C7 tabulation, tracking audiences for a full week.) Networks loved the number—it seemed a truer representation of their shows’ actual audience. But at first advertisers didn’t pay much attention. Viewers who recorded a show on a DVR were assumed to be fast-forwarding through the commercials and thus immune to sales pitches.
Over time, though, that meant ignoring more and more viewers. Today, it’s not rare for a huge portion of a show’s audience to watch it well after it originally aired. CBS, for example, recently released data showing that the viewership for its Sherlock Holmes reboot, Elementary, skyrocketed when seven days were tracked—its rating among the valuable 18- to 49-year-old demographic shot up 64 percent. (And there’s no reason to stop at seven days. Millions of hours of TV get watched beyond the one-week cutoff. Science fiction shows, it turns out, are particularly likely to be watched more than a week after they air.)
Eventually, advertisers began to find ways to reach even those ad-skipping viewers. They created campaigns that mimicked the look of the show they aired against—in some cases using the same locations and actors—in an effort to trick fans into releasing the fast-forward button. (There’s even a name for these spots: podbusters.) And they optimized their spots so that their brand could be recognizable even at six times the normal playing speed. Indeed, some researchers have found that fast-forwarders are even more attentive to ads, since they’re watching closely to see when the commercial block has ended.
The lesson is that once you identify and track how an audience actually interacts with television, it’s only a matter of time until advertisers create ways to sell stuff to that audience. And when a full 40 percent of Twitter’s traffic during peak usage is about television, it’s not hard to see where the action is headed. “This is a huge topic of conversation,” says Steve Hasker, Nielsen’s president of media products and advertiser solutions. “Their ad sales guys want to be able to go to the market and say, ‘Our program has three times the engagement, because we’ve got many more people tweeting about it—and by the way, they’re young, they’re tech-savvy, and they buy lots of products.’”
And that’s why, some day in the near future, a show’s tweetability may be just as crucial as the sheer size of its audience. It’s something that advertisers and networks already realize, albeit in a vague and unquantified way. But as Nielsen—and other analytics companies—race to capture a show’s true impact across all platforms, it will change the way those shows are valued. That’s good news for television that is worth talking about, watching again, chewing on, Tumbling over. It’s good news for all of us.
Tom Vanderbilt (tomvanderbilt firstname.lastname@example.org) wrote about autonomous cars in issue 20.02.
Sex Makes Shows Smarter(Thanks, Game of Thrones.)
Sex. Don’t lie—that’s why you watch HBO. Well, maybe also for the fascinating characters, intricate plots, and punchy writing. But historically on premium cable, sex was sex and plot was plot and never the twain did meet. Now—if Game of Thrones is any indication—sex and story are becoming one and the same.
When the adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy novels first aired in spring 2011, it swelled with sex—par for the course in HBO’s True Blood era. But there was a difference this time: Characters spoke in these scenes. And not just pillow talk, either, but epic discussions of dynasties, subterfuge, and redemption. We learned about the Lannister siblings while a character was downing wine and being serviced by a topless prostitute. Dragon lore got discussed during one extremely NSFW bath. Then the coup de grâce: a major character delivering a five-minute monolog while two women get it on in the background. Even the competition couldn’t hide its admiration. “Nobody gets to talk for two pages about power!” says Julie Plec, executive producer of The Vampire Diaries, CW’s sex-lite answer to True Blood.
So forget sex. It’s “sexposition” now—a way for cable writers to keep your attention while educating you on plot, background, and character. We reviewed five current HBO shows to see how many series are employing it. Not many, it turns out. More than 65 percent of the sex scenes on Game of Thrones accompany plot points; compare that with 35 percent of True Blood‘s. The sex in Girls is less expository, more experimental. And Veep, in open defiance of pay-cable norms, abstains from getting down and dirty—unless you count underhanded political tricks. (It returns for season two on April 14.) So is sexposition the exception or evidence of HBO’s changing MO? Guess we’ll have to keep watching to find out—whether courtesans are grinding in the background or not. —Jason Kehe
Increase in audience when you include DVR viewing for seven days after original airdate.
Two companies are ushering in a new era of TV ratings, one hashtag at a time.
Twitter purchased social media tracking company Bluefin Labs in February to help it create new ad products and turn mentions into dollars—something Twitter couldn’t do without robust analytics. But Bluefin isn’t the only outfit combing online chatter to redefine the social impact of TV viewership for networks and advertisers: Trendrr offers a similar service. Both companies mine messages from Twitter, Facebook, and other social platforms. From there, Trendrr uses proprietary queries to gather information on gender, location, and mobile devices. Bluefin applies decades of machine learning and cognitive science research to net its own results—not only in response to shows but to ads as well. Both companies then match these messages to a show’s plotline and characters using natural language processing and airtimes, and voilà: viewing habits on a platter. —Rachel Swaby
The 18-49 demographic ratings were 64% higher when seven days of DVR viewing was factored in.
TV Can Be Crowdsourced
Amazon has used Big Data to hone its customer service. It has used it to recommend new products to frequent shoppers. And now Jeff Bezos and company are using all they know about their 200 million active users to turn Hollywood’s TV system on its head and develop their own programming—and give Netflix a run for its money.
Last May, the company’s programming arm, Amazon Studios, announced it would be creating original comedy and children’s series—and anyone could upload pilot scripts and solicit feedback from Amazon users via the studio’s site. A dedicated staff took that feedback into consideration as it sifted through more than 2,700 of those scripts, ultimately settling on 25 shows for its active development slate. In late December, they green-lit six comedy pilots; some come from established writers like Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau and The Daily Show’s David Javerbaum, and some from newcomers who were discovered through the open-door process.
At this point in the conventional network system, programming executives would decide which ones to turn into series. Instead, Amazon will stream the six pilots over the coming months and deploy their user base as a giant decentralized TV focus group. The viewing data and feedback will then be used to select—and tweak—the most promising projects, so that when the series launch, they’ll already be optimized for both quality and buzz. “We may find that the genre tone or narrative model of popular shows evolves,” says Roy Price, director of Amazon Studios. And if it winds up with a hit on its hands, there’ll be plenty of people to thank. —Bryan Gardiner
Beauty Is a Science
Analyzing the CW Network’s robo-hunks.
They’re not just handsome. With their square jaws and penetrating eyes, the mandroids on the CW’s shows are preternaturally good-looking. In Hollywood, it’s called hotness. In scientific terms, it sounds a little less sexy. “They pretty much all have high symmetry in their faces,” says Carin Perilloux, an evolutionary psychologist at Union College in Schenectady, New York. That symmetry indicates “good genes, hardy immune systems, and developmental consistency.” But after careful examination of the network’s many hunks, we (with Perilloux’s help) have determined that it’s possible to sort the actors into two scientifically distinct groups—one likely to fulfill short-term, um, needs, the other more suited to lifelong contentment. Here’s how they break down. —Liz Stinson
Courtesy of the CW (7); Everett (1)
The Fling: stronger jaw + pronounced brow ridges + stubble
The Vampire Diaries
Beauty and the Beast
The Beau Next Door: fuller lips + rounder cheeks
Emily Owens, MD
Hart of Dixie
Jonathan Patrick Moore
The L.A. Complex
The Carrie Diaries
Networks Can Read Your Mind
After shouldering through the crowds on the Vegas strip, it’s a relief to plop down in a comfy chair and watch TV—even if you have electrodes taped to your skull. In fact, that’s just part of the fun here at Television City, the state-of-the-art lab nestled inside the MGM Grand Hotel, where CBS studies how people watch TV. For 10.5 hours a day, 365 days a year, tourists view advertisements, pilots, and never-before-seen episodes of their favorite shows, helping the network pick new programming and gauge how new characters or story lines on current shows will play with their audiences. While the TV City volunteers are busy registering their real-time opinions of the content on iPads, the iPads are watching them back, tracking their facial expressions and correlating them with mood. If you grimace and hit the so-called Tune-Out button—letting researchers know that you would have turned off the TV if you were watching at home—the creative team behind the show will hear about it the next day. “Generally, people are good at telling us what they like,” says David F. Poltrack, chief research officer for CBS Corporation and president of CBS Vision, the network’s research division. But there are things “people don’t realize are turning them off.” That’s where the electrodes come in. In concert with eye tracking, they capture brain wave activity during advertisements, gauging attention, emotional engagement, and memory activation. One current area of focus at TV City is “priming”—how what you see before a commercial break affects your reaction to the spot. So sit back, put your feet up, and let the computers observe your every brain wave. Maybe next season you’ll come across a show that feels eerily like it was made just for you. —Lizzie Wade
More Competition = Better TV
Last year, cable networks won more Emmys than the broadcast giants. Cable’s evolution from dumping ground to destination has been a long and steady one, and it led to a channel fragmentation no Seinfeld-era NBC executive could have foreseen: With so many more places to see great shows, the distinction between broadcast and cable has disappeared. Read More
TV’s Power Has Shifted
The secret weapons who make the shows you love great.
The Surgical Strike
5-second bio: Age 30. Mad Men was her first major casting. Member of cover band the Girls. 425,000 Twitter followers, far outpacing anyone else on Mad Men. First role was a guest spot on Hannah Montana.
The secret to coming out of nowhere and becoming a female smart-TV sensation (if you’re not Lena Dunham): First, stay the hell away from three-camera sitcoms. Trust us, a small role on a great show is way better than starring on a short-lived stinker. Second, show some damn range. If you’ve only seen Alison Brie on Community, you assume she has no interest in capital-A Acting; if you’ve only seen her on Mad Men, then you can’t imagine her being hilarious.
But here’s the part that matters perhaps most of all: Understand that TV isn’t being watched the same way anymore. Engage your shows’ fans; go to conventions and cultivate a huge and devoted Twitter following. Keep one foot planted firmly in the world of online comedy via Funny or Die videos; indulge your burgeoning nerd-crush status by going on Attack of the Show (though you’re under no obligation to peruse the subreddit devoted to GIFs of you in tight clothing). If you’re in a band, be in a fun band—and don’t be afraid to freestyle rap at a concert. Alison Brie has done all of this, and she’s done it exactly right. She’s an integral part of the smartest sitcom on television and the woman behind one of AMC’s most conflicted Mad Men. She’s innocent but winking, whip-smart but still shamelessly clownish for a laugh. She’s fan service of the highest order, but she’s always in on the joke. She has optimized celebrity with an almost algorithmic perfection, and it all boils down to this: Be loved and love back, but always have the chops to back it up. More of her, please. —Peter Rubin
The Scatter Bomb
5-second bio: Age 46. Stage actor who has appeared in multiple Broadway plays as well as Shakespeare in the Park; recently cast in the upcoming AMC drama Low Winter Sun.
The silver screen has always been where character actors do what they do best. Well, not anymore. Ever since David Costabile popped up, he’s been cutting a swath through appointment TV like none other. Sure, he’s done the usual guest parts: three differentLaw & Order shows, killer of the week on Elementary, dramas up and down the network list. But anyone who’s smart enough to cast him in a recurring role knows they’re getting a performer who inhabits his characters so perfectly as to consistently be a fan favorite.
HBO got him first—for The Wire’s final season (as The Baltimore Sun’s sycophantic managing editor) and as the infinitely patient almost-cuckold on Flight of the Conchords. On Breaking Bad, his mild-mannered chemist Gale Boetticher gave the show one of its finest moments as he puttered around his apartment and sang Italian at breakneck speed. Even as a machinating heavy on the criminally underrated Suits, he’s a joy. So mark our words: When AMC’s latest bleak drama, Low Winter Sun, comes to television screens, he’ll be one of the best things about it. He always is.