May 24, 2010

When Good TV Shows Get Canceled

With network upfronts come and gone, it means that tv shows have been cancelled and there are new shows to worry about meeting the same fate.

Having seen plenty of complaints from friends about good shows being cancelled, I thought I’d use what knowledge I had of ratings from working in advertising and what I’ve gleaned from the internet to give you a rundown on why shows (including good shows) get canceled.

The obvious reason is low ratings. If there is no audience, then there is no reason to continue. But why do networks save some low rated shows and not others? That’s the key.

Ratings. Ratings come from a company called Neilsen, who pick representative households and monitors their TV viewing habits for a given week. Each Neilsen family represents a specific number of regular households (made up example- for ever Neilsen family, they might assume that 1,000 other houses have the same demographic make up and same viewing habits), and from what they watch, they determine who is watching what shows.

However, these numbers aren’t exactly to say who exactly is watching TV. Ratings are for advertisers, so that they know who are watching their ads. Ad placements are where networks make their profits and pay for shows, so if a show isn’t attractive to advertisers- they won’t get money to produce it, so the show gets cancelled.

That’s why ratings matter.

However, there’s something that they don’t exactly tell you. One, their estimations are just that. While it tends to be fairly accurate for older viewers, it occasionally underreports how many younger viewers are watching. Those 18-35 viewers that everyone wants.

But why? We’re becoming a technologically driven society. How many of your friends have DVRs? Advertisers don’t care about them (or you, if you have one). Why is that? If you aren’t watching a show live, you can skip the ads. If you’re a Neilsen viewer and even pause the show to run to the bathroom? They won’t include your numbers in their totals… and suddenly thousands upon thousands of viewers for a show disappears.

Now, people will always claim that shows will give low-rated shows a chance and then they succeed. This is rare. For every Seinfeld or Cheers, you have a low-rated show that just continued to plummet when given a reprieve. Pushing Daisies was given another season even though its ratings weren’t high, and it just kept getting lower rated with each episode that aired. Heroes was renewed for two seasons after it had started to dive in the ratings, and never reclaimed when it had its first season.

Sometimes shows are canceled after network mismanaging. Firefly was canceled after being preempted for baseball playoffs, moved to different nights, and having episodes air out of order. While it was a fine show, FOX just didn’t know how to promote it or what to do with it. Promotion is a big problem- from movies to TV. Promos are done by networks, based off of footage that they’re given by the show. And typically, unless they’re really invested in the show and know it well, the promotional people are going to resort to trying to define it by it’s genre. So for dramas, you’ll see emotional conflict, action series a cliffhanger sort of moment, and for comedies, you’ll get a few laughs. But for shows that bridge genres (like scifi), it tends to get tricky. For Firefly, most of the promos missed how clever the show actually was. Pushing Daisies was promoted with small promos that mostly featured the logo, and said little about the episodes. Not entirely enticing to someone who didn’t know what it already was. Sarah Connor Chronicles preferred to promote the show with single shots of the characters holding guns and looking hot- not even hinting at the humanity within the show.

So there you have it- some shows actually have low ratings. Some shows are underreported in ratings because they primarily appeal to the DVR set. Some shows are badly promoted and miss their target audience.

Which leads to the question- what can you do to save your show? If you like a TV show and are a Nielsen family, watch it live. If you aren’t a Neilsen family, tell your friends to watch the show live- maybe one of them is! Join internet communities (especially those on the network sites) and let them see that there is a vocal community that enjoys the show. Sometimes, this is enough to help convince advertisers and networks to take a leap of faith. It was Chuck’s vocal internet fanbase that got Subway to sponsor the show, and gave NBC what it needed to give it a renewal for the current season. While write in campaigns are nice, usually by the time those start, the show is already in serious danger- and likely has already wrapped its filming. If that’s the case, it’s easier to pull the plug on a show where the sets were already taken down and series regulars might have already been looking for work. So, if you like a show that started off with a rough month, start your internet campaign right then, and convince other fans to do likewise. If you can, visit conventions and go to the panels for your favorite show. A full room with a line of people waiting to get in sends a message to the network that they just might be wrong about how many people are really watching.

Also, buy merchandise related to the show. If they see that people are buying t-shirts or posters, then they know that people care about the show.

Yes, the ratings system is broken. But until someone else can come up with a system to make advertisers happy, it’s all we have. So learn to work outside of the system and be vocal about your favorite show (tweet about it!)! Or, if you think you know how to fix the ratings systems… work it out, and make a fortune off of it!

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