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As we’ve seen, I have a strenuous regimen of television watching—one that, if confined to traditional broadcast methods, would probably occupy most evenings of my week, lowering my productivity to near-zero. But we live in the twenty-first century and so technology helps me take what once might have been a crippling condition and make it manageable.

Unlike music and movie piracy, television piracy didn’t really start to become popular until the advent of BitTorrent. While TV shows are usually shorter than movies and thus have smaller file sizes, they more than make up for that smaller size with increased frequency. Distributing a movie is difficult enough, but if you’re trying to keep up with a weekly show, there’s a heck of a lot more data to be transferred on a repeated basis. BitTorrent made that much easier, due to a couple of factors: 1) The de-centralized nature of the file-swapping technology shares the burden by making every downloader a server as well, which leads to 2) the somewhat counterintuitive proposition that the more people who download a show, the faster everybody downloads it.

I’ve often wondered if some metric could not be divined from the relative speeds of downloading. Some shows seem to transfer very quickly, while others simply crawl. This is due in part to differences like file size—for example, downloading an entire season usually takes longer than downloading a single episode—the overriding mechanic at work here is popularity. Again, in optimal conditions, the more people downloading a file, the more servers, and the faster it goes. And if popularity is the deciding factor, it would seem logical (if simplistic) to conclude that the shows that download the fastest are the most popular.

Television ratings are an imperfect science—if they can even be called a science. Even today, Nielsen relies heavily on written diaries kept by their selected “families,” tracking their television watching habits (they do have an electronic device called a “Set Meter” as well, and have been slowly adapting to other forms of technology—while the company moved to start including digital video recorders, such as TiVo, in ratings, it did not do so until 2005).

But do ratings even work?

They’re used by networks to set advertising rates: if you can guarantee X number of watchers for a certain program, then you can tell your advertisers what kind of exposure they’ll be getting for their spots, and thus how much those spots are worth. DVRs and other methods of time- and place-shifting complicate that, but those factors have not yet been rolled into the networks’ rates to advertisers. As technology progresses and more and more people are watching online by streaming from networks’ websites, downloading from iTunes, or, yes, pirating via BitTorrent or other methods, then ratings—as a measurement of what people are really watching—get even fuzzier.

We’ve all of us—some more than others—seen a favorite shows get axed by a network due to low ratings (which is pretty much the only metric used to decide if a show lives or dies—nobody’s going to cancel a highly-rated show with poor reviews from critics, though the situation happens all too often—just ask Tim Minear). TV is a business, so it’s not a surprise particularly: if people aren’t watching a show, then advertisers aren’t getting what they’ve paid for. NBC recently had to refund money to advertisers for missing their target ratings—that’s pretty rare and it’s a situation that NBC wants to avoid at all costs, as much because of its image as its pocketbook.

However, if the ratings system is, as I’ve suggested above, flawed, then how do we know that people aren’t watching? What if they’re streaming shows online (for which, we’ll remind you, writers barely get paid), or downloading them—either legally or illegally? Admittedly, streams usually have their own advertising baked-in and downloads—both legal and illegal—don’t really matter to advertisers, because there aren’t any ads for viewers to watch. But, for one thing, revenue is still made from legal downloads and streams and it seems that should be figured into whether a show continues to be produced or not; for another, there are plenty of people who don’t stream or download every episode; they might watch it when it airs one week, then catch up on the website if they miss an episode. And while illegal downloads may not directly contribute to a show’s bottom line, it’s hard to argue that they aren’t in some way reflective of whether a show is being watched or not. A recent essay suggests that networks are actually considering Bit Torrent statistics as a metric of a show’s popularity; it also suggests networks are now starting to leak pilots to Bit Torrent before the shows air, in the hopes of building hype. Obviously, doing so can build a show’s reputation by word of mouth, even going so far as to widen exposure for shows that may have been otherwise constrained—they give the example of Weeds, which has become extremely popular despite the fact that Showtime, as a premium network, has a smaller audience than broadcast networks.

This is where the Long Tail comes in. If you’re not familiar with this phenomenon, here’s Wikipedia concise definition: “Businesses with distribution power can sell a greater volume of otherwise hard-to-find items at small volumes than of popular items at large volumes.” Or, as Lincoln might have put it, you can make as much money—if not more—by selling to some of the people all of the time as you can by selling all of the people some of the time. This is pretty much the polar opposite of the way network television works; for them, if you can’t capture a majority of the market, you’ve already lost. It’s always perplexed me that networks continue to deliberately schedule shows against programs with similar demographics, as though network television were some sort of zero-sum game. Once upon a time, it was, but VCRs, DVRs, and now streams and downloads have provided an end-run around this proposition for years: now you can defy the laws of time and space and watch two shows that air at the same time by watching one—or both—at a time of your own choosing.

But the ratings aren’t treated that way. The networks are still stuck in that mentality where winning means your opponent has to lose—they’re operating under the holy rubric of the primetime slate, thinking three-dimensionally in a world that’s now four-dimensional. As a result, even if a show has a particularly rabid following—take Joss Whedon’s Firefly as an example—and especially if that following is technologically savvy, potentially watching the show in ways that aren’t tracked by ratings, then the networks might make a decision on the life of the show based on flawed or incomplete information. In rare cases, fans have been able to mobilize and show their support for a cancelled program—I’m thinking particularly of the campaign earlier this year to save CBS’s Jericho—but for every example where that tactic succeeds, there are at least three or four examples of equally-deserving shows where it fails (Veronica Mars, or Journeyman).

The television model is predicated on an increasingly inaccurate and unstable system; the fact that we’re currently in a lengthy transition period only compounds the problem. As of yet, not enough people are watching shows via streams and downloads, and millions still tune in the old-fashioned way every week to watch “Dancing with the Stars.” There’s a surfeit of ways to consume television content right now, and yet the tracking—in an industry that still depends on such data to make its decisions—is far from comprehensive. There are many who loudly and vocally decry such tracking because they consider it a violation of privacy—me, I want the networks to track me so that they stop canceling my shows.

I don’t know if the television industry could operate under a Long Tail model, but as consumer attention becomes more and more splintered and fragmented it seems to me that they might, as that model suggests, be able to profit more from appealing to smaller groups than by trying to get as big a chunk of viewership as possible. What is clear to me, especially given the current situation with the writers who clearly do realize the impact that technology is having, is that the networks need to adapt or die a long, slow, painful death.

Two responses:

1. You should check out the Convergence Culture Consortium‘s weblog, where they discuss the issue of ratings effectiveness regularly.

2. The current dominant models of music sales and TV programming/scheduling (i.e., viewer sales) may not be palatable to those of us who have had a taste of the alternatives—but why do you assume that this promises “a slow, painful death” to networks? Part of the reason they haven’t changed this model is that this is still where the most money is for them. There are other models that would probably please audiences more, and they could certainly capitalize on other distribution methods more effectively than they do now, but at the end of the day, nobody has really come up with a suggestion that would monetize audiences as profitably as the present advertiser-driven system. (Whether Nielsen ratings should really be the foundation upon which this system is built is another matter entirely.)

Publicly traded companies will never settle on “good enough”—it’s their legal obligation to maximize shareholder value. Switching models now doesn’t come close to being worth it to them even as they look long-term, at least until somebody figures out a way to squeeze a great deal more cash out of those of us who are pretty used to watching our television commercial-free and without spending a penny.

Also, as the fake Daily Show sketch indicated, it’s not as if the TV corporations aren’t monetizing online stuff at all—they just don’t want to share with the writers. There may be a day when NBC simply can’t promise advertisers the ratings it has always promised, and so it will have less money and may see a larger proportion of its revenue coming from other sources (online, DVD, etc.). I’m not sure how that equates to “dying,” though.

As recently as a few of years ago, none of the major networks were making their programming online; today, all of them are. You refer to “those of us who have had a taste of the alternatives”; that number is only going to continue to increase, whether it be via the bundling of DVRs and video-on-demand integrated with traditional set-top boxes or people turning to online viewing in its legal or illegal forms.

That why I specifically said that it’d be slow and painful. This isn’t going to happen all at once; sure, there may come a tipping point, but at the moment you’re right: most of the money is still in the traditional model. And while nobody has yet come up with a solution as effective as the ad-driven system, that doesn’t mean nobody will. Before iTunes, nobody had found a truly effective model for selling digital music online. Today, less than five years after its inception, iTunes is the #3 music retailer. The networks haven’t found their iTunes yet—witness NBC flailing around, partnering with everybody under the sun (except for Apple, having withdrawn their content from the iTunes Store) in a desperate attempt to cover all their bases.

And while companies do have that obligation to maximize their shareholder value, if a system was found that was more attractive to consumers, it would certainly have the potential to increase shareholder value. If NBC and other networks end up having to refund more money to advertisers, then that traditional model is going to come under assault.

Perhaps “dying” was a bit hyperbolic; I do think that the current transition and challenges from the online market will have an adverse effect on the traditional way of doing business at some point, and if the networks don’t adapt, they will find themselves losing both money and relevance. Again, I don’t think they’ll keel over tomorrow, but hey, we’re still in the middle of the most serious disruption of television programming in twenty years and how this plays out will clearly have a major impact on the industry. And the issues at stake there are related to this future of television content on the Internet.