Live TV: The Silent Killer

Who still watches live TV?  I fancy myself as a television enthusiast, but honestly I don’t have one show (including sporting events) that I watch live on a continual basis, yet I am constantly finding out that another great show is being cancelled due to low ratings.  Digital Video Recording (DVR) devices and services like Netflix have given consumers a new way to consume shows at their personal leisure; usually in bulk.  There are a lot of shows that deserve a longer life, if serious changes can be made to the way we calculate popularity.

Season two of the HBO show “Enlightened” was the best pure story-telling I have seen on television since “The Wire,” yet HBO cancelled it apparently because viewership wasn’t high enough.  It didn’t seem like ‘”Fringe” ever got enough time or acclaim before getting canceled, and according to TV By The Numbers, it’s Friday night replacement “Touch” won’t make it past this season.  In my opinion, all of these are good programs with good stories that deserve more seasons on the air.

Meanwhile, “The Real World” is in the midst of their 28th season on MTV (not judging, I’m just saying).

I would like to think that really smart people are in a think tank somewhere coming up with a great way to quantify DVR/Netflix viewership, but if that were true, shows would have a longer television shelf-life.  Nielsen ratings are still the gold standard for how television viewership is measured, and though they’re trying to keep up with our changing world, it seems as if they’re still far behind.

Becky Striepe broke down how current DVR ratings are tracked for How Stuff Works:

“Most networks use Nielsen’s Live Plus service to track ratings. Live Plus looks at who watched shows on their DVRs within different time frames. Generally, it tracks three major categories: Live-Plus-Same-Day, Live-Plus-Three and Live-Plus-Seven. Each one looks at a broader timeframe, so Live-Plus-Same-Day looks not only at who was watching when the show aired, but also who watched the show that day and the next. Live-Plus-Three and Live-Plus-Seven track who watched within three and seven days of the original airing, respectively. When Nielsen first rolled out its Live Plus service, network executives were uncertain, but it’s become an industry standard.

This whole process is a little archaic.  Sometimes I purposely will let a show pile up on my DVR before watching it.   This process can take months, so that puts me (and many others) outside of Nielson’s “Plus” program.  How much does DVD sales, quality, and “buzz” factor into a television exec.’s decision to give a program the axe?

I know, I know, over-the-air television and cable networks are currently set up in a way that tries to maximize advertising revenue which is how they make their money.  Premium channels like Showtime and HBO make decisions that they believe will attract the most subscribers.  What’s wrong with offering more quality “web only” programs?  Why not have sponsors for television show DVDs to supplement costs?

All of this might be a moot conversation going forward.  Netflix changed the way we rent movies, and just might change the way we watch television, too.  They already offer DVDs, Blu-Ray, and streaming movies/television shows, but they are now starting their own original programming.  According to Reuters, they have seen an upswing in profits since the debut of their first original series “House of Cards.”  All 14 episodes of season one is available for subscribers who want to binge-watch, or watch one-at-a-time when they see fit.  No Nielsen, no pressure, no problem.

There have been too many casualties in the battle for live ratings.  In the future, shows may be judged on views (streamed online), or DVD/Blu-ray rentals… you know… real consumer demand, not consumers who have can watch live (at an involuntary time).

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Jack Gotta

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