The Nielsen Family is Dead

Wired comes through with a realistic look at what TV has – and will – become. Basic premise: With the rise of the interwebs and social media and alternate ways of watching television, the whole thing about ratings determining what advertisers pay is obsolete…and the smart programmers know it.

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tv-rule-1

THE NEW RULES OF THE HYPER-SOCIAL, DATA-DRIVEN, ACTOR-FRIENDLY, SUPER-SEDUCTIVE PLATINUM AGE OF TELEVISION
by Tom Vanderbilt

From Game of Thrones to the new Arrested Development, television is better than ever. And it’s not just a lucky accident. Turns out that networks and advertisers are using all-new metrics to design hit shows. Under these new rules, Twitter feeds are as important as ratings, fresh ideas beat tired formulas, and niche stars can be as valuable as big names. Case in point: Mad Men and Community’s Alison Brie.

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 BadGirlsMad 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.

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