Nielsen Schmielsen

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Sean has an interesting article over on his site where he discusses the major television network’s recent Upfront press meetings – the annual Spring event where they trot out their new fall lineups and dance upon the fresh carcasses (carcassi???) of the quality shows they killed in favor of five straight nights of American Idol, American Idol Tostitos™ Pre-Game Show, American Idol: The Results Show, American Idol Blunders, Bleeps and Bloopers, and Idols Gone Idle: 2 Hot 4 TV.

Why are the Nielsen ratings still tallied? These days, more people are prone to tape, Tivo and download their favorite show and watch it when they want to on the device they want (I like to watch Deal or No Deal on the can). I know the ratings are a tool the networks use to set ad rates – but why haven’t the companies that pony up big cash for this lucrative prime-time real estate figured out that these ratings are suspect at best. Actually, its probably in the best interest of the networks to design a better divining rod, as they are undoubtably losing tally of essential peepers when some dude chooses to Tivo Teachers in favor of a marathon World of Warcraft session.

Networks need to clue in to the fact that the days of appointment viewing are waning. Good riddance, I say. I have a stable of television shows that I never miss – but one thing that I could do without is the pressure to get my ass on the couch at the same pre-determined time. I have a job, kids, wife – i.e. a life – and TV can wait. Why should I have to bust my ass to get home for the two-hour 24 finale (which overlaps the two-hour Alias finale) when I can rip ‘em both to a DVD or hard drive and watch at my leisure.
All of which makes the networks’ reliance on Nielsen as a barometer to success all the more baffling. It’s akin to me trying to adjust the reception of my digital cable with rabbit ears.

Look at The Office. The only thing that saved that show from going the way of Freaks and Geeks and the diplodocus were record-breaking numbers of people scoring the show off of iTunes. Its success led to more shows being offered in alternate venues. Joe headed to the Sox game Monday to see Ortiz and the Red Sox whack Wang around (that’s Chien-Ming you pervs). He’s a fan of both Alias and 24 – both of which closed their seasons that night. Yet Joe felt no sense of anxiety as he had plans to DL both eps off their respective sites by sunup in order to wage watercooler gossip with the best of us the following morning.

Reading Sean’s well documented treatise, I have to wonder, how is it that he and I can pontificate on what’s wrong in La La Land with such clarity – neither one of us ever having stepped foot in a Studio City boardroom – yet those Hollywood suits can’t figure out that they might be able to turn Invasion into a break-out hit by exploiting the TV on DVD trend.

That example has me increasingly vexed. Here’s a quality show that started slow and picked up some real steam over the past 10 weeks – but due to high production costs and mediocre ratings, it’s cancelled just as it’s getting great. A little out-of-the-box thinking (actually in-the-box thinking these days) would have allowed the show to be released on DVD – marketed the release (hell – put a free episode on a DVD and package it with Entertainment Weekly – as NBC did with My Name is Earl at the start of the season) and then give Shawn Cassidy a 1/2 season commitment to either boost ratings or close the show out proper. Sean cites the 3-episode airing of Love Monkey as another prime example. Good Call. Never saw the show but something tells me three-eps is hardly a large enough sample to judge by. What about that Heather Graham show. Hyped throughout the NFL playoffs ad-nauseum and then cancelled after one episode. Again – that show didn’t appear to be my cup of tea – but all genres get this short shrift. I remember the way Fox handled Chris Carter’s Harsh Realm. Eight eps in and the promising series was axed by the same network that allowed The X-Files three years of middling cult-worship to find its mainstream audience. 

That’s the networks for ya’. Always behind. Look at Lost. The producers have lobbied for a straight run of 22 episodes since last season to avoid the lengthy hiatus’ that occurs in a 38-week season. The inevitable breaks, usually timed around holidays, may work well for stand-alone comedies, but they just drain a dramatic series of crucial momentum. And with the momentum go some of the fickle fans. (“I wonder what’s gonna happen when they open up the hatch. What could be in… oooh look, a penny.”) The producers cite cable shows like The Sopranos and The Shields as benefiting from these straight runs. Even Fox stepped up to the plate and gave 24 that treatment – starting with last year’s Season 4 – and that show has enjoyed its greatest success to date. In fact, I think 24 – in it’s fifth year – is more popular than its ever been and its benefiting creatively. In addition, the straight run allows more pre-season prep time.

The good news. Next year, Lost runs 7 eps – takes a hiatus – and then retuns with another 15 straight. That’s a start!!!

While I’m airing out my gripes, I’ll close with one final complaint. For years, the oft-heard phrase “Tonight, an ALL NEW 7th Heaven” has stuck in my craw. ALL NEW?!?!? Geez, I’d settle for 78% new with the other 22 % of content made up of supporting actor screen tests, flubbed lines and discarded Animal Planet stock footage, but if you’re gonna give me ALL NEW – well hell, I’ll settle down for three straights hours of Surface.

The WB hipsters had apparently heard my pleas and long ago replaced “ALL NEW” with “Tonight, a FRESH episode of Smallville; followed by FRESH episodes of One Tree Hill and Supernatural.”

You ever get that not so fresh feeling?

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Comments now closed (5)

  • Actually, did Harsh Realm even get all eight episodes shown over the air or was it another Love Monkey (7 in the can, but only 3 aired on CBS)? I don’t remember getting to watch more than 3 or 4 eps of HR before it was pulled and I don’t think I have seen the rest since I never watched/rented the DVD they released.

    Also, if that WoW comment was directed at me, then you know I don’t play that, but I am guilty of watching Teachers. Like I said to you, two hot chicks on a single show is enough to get my single-guy attention span, no matter if the show isn’t that funny cuz I didn’t notice. 🙂

  • Ahhh… take it easy Mr. Sensitive. That WoW comment was directed at anyone (and to my ears doesn’t ring as an insult anyway). It was a general statement meant to illustrate my thesis that we watch what we want, when we want. I used Teachers as an example because it flows well with Tivo (as in Tivo Teachers) and me loves mw some alliteration. Given Teachers abysmal ratings, I can understand how you could feel you were the only guy watching the show – hence your misinterpretation that this was against you. So take it easy you paranoid freak. Shhhh… I think this line is tapped. I think the mailmen are listening.

  • Hey now, I have good reason to belive it was levied at me since I mentioned the show in my post and I had previously told you I watched it and your reaction at that time was to laugh and ask why to which I responded two hot chicks and a couple laughs…breath…and I wasn’t being sensitive about it because my only point was to make sure the World knows I’m not a WoW geek…