TV-ratings losers could be winners on-line

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      When your summer hits are barely outperforming reruns of Friends, you know your broadcast model is in need of revamping.

      On a few occasions in the 1970s and '80s, my family was honoured with being a Nielsen ratings household. That meant we supplied some basic demographic information about the people in the house and spent a week filling out a little diary with the shows we watched on TV. Then we mailed it off and awaited our thank-you gift, which turned out–at least the first time–to be 50 cents. Times sure have changed. That would now be considered an insulting tip for the barista who just made your fancy coffee.

      Other things have changed, too. There was only one TV in the house back then, and there weren't a whole lot of channels to choose between in the early days of cable. The diary system worked just fine for a situation that simple. Even when the two-television household became commonplace it was easy for the pollsters to scale up by sending a couple of diaries. Then the VCR came along. At first, that wasn't much of a problem because nobody actually owned one; until the mid 1980s you probably rented the machine bundled with the number of movies you felt you could cram in before it all had to be returned. To the ratings company, a movie night just meant you didn't watch anything it cared about.

      But once people started buying VCRs, they used them to tape broadcasts as well as watch rented movies, and it's tough to document time-shifted viewing in a diary that was designed back in the old days. I've heard that today even viewing a recorded show doesn't count unless it happens within a few days of airing, but that's probably due to the need to get the results for the week finalized more than anything. Incidentally, if you want to see recent ratings, Nielsen's U.S. site ( ) offers some top weekly lists for that country. The most interesting thing is the paltry number of people who need to be watching to keep a show on the air–at least when compared to the masses who used to watch. Most of the summer hits get less than three times the audience that reruns of Friends and Seinfeld get.

      Nielsen Media Research adapted to the changes and has broadened its activities to include new media. But those low audience numbers have made an impact on the broadcasting world. The companies whose profits depend on ratings (broadcasters and those who try to sell them shows) have had to work a lot harder to get our attention, what with competition from all those other channels, not to mention the Internet, video-game consoles, and DVD players. There are probably a few VCRs still running, too.

      Some shows have tried to catch our notice by avoiding TV clichés and aiming for quality, opting for intricate story lines that don't wrap up neatly with a chuckle at the end of each hour. In some cases, like the better seasons of 24 , you're as good as being treated to an epic film.

      But from a viewership standpoint, there's a flaw. If you can't draw a big enough audience for the first episode–or rather, the ideal audience for your show doesn't find you in time–the economics of filling your time slot with another show (or Seinfeld reruns) become hard to argue against. Even if people start hearing that a show is pretty good, the intricate story line becomes a disadvantage in winning new viewers. I'm sure a lot of people play catch-up by downloading the first few episodes off the Internet, but that doesn't help their ratings, does it?

      I figure that's why three new series that I thought were pretty good abruptly vanished. Last fall, there was Smith , mid-season it was Day Break , and over the summer it was Traveler . Terrible names, huh? They tell you nothing about the shows, so unless a promotional spot or a media critic gave you the heads-up–or you simply stumbled in when they aired–you probably never saw them. That's what the ratings suggest.

      But then a funny thing happened, at least with Smith and Day Break . The unaired episodes (usually reserved for airing during the summer doldrums, if at all) were made available to watch on-line via the TV networks' own Web sites. No, the ratings didn't go through the roof, nor did a groundswell of public demand put the shows back into production, but as I watched it occurred to me that broadcasters could very easily transform into Webcasting entities and actually prosper.

      After all, when a show airs, there are only about 15 minutes per hour for commercials and other material. On a Web page of the sort that you watch a video feed through there could be several banner ads wrapped around the image for the whole time you're watching, in addition to non-skippable ads during the show. Plus, requiring someone to register would give the networks precise demographic data, along with how long somebody watched, whether or not they watched every episode, and what exact advertising they were exposed to.

      It's a short step from there to more direct sponsorships, either from the viewer paying for higher video quality and commercial-free shows or from companies subsidizing the viewing in whole or in part. It's the near-perfect media marketplace, and I suspect NBC and iTunes wouldn't have had their falling-out over on-line TV show sales if NBC hadn't had a backup plan in mind, either another retail outlet or an in-house project. Mind you, if the only reason was to sell the shows at a higher price (the purported reason for the split), then NBC made a big mistake. It'll end up driving people to the pirated versions for free and losing ratings and sales. I guess we'll learn after the new season debuts the week of September 24 if NBC is an old-media company that's flailing around cluelessly or a new-media one that's finding its stride.