I started this post as a reply to a comment on the new Renewed/Cancelled Shows page, but it was getting so long i decided to turn it into a post instead! :D Denise (the commenter), was remarking that Channel 4 had been moving the UK air date ‘The Event‘ later and later which can’t be helping it’s chances of renewal. And that did get me thinking…
What effect do overseas viewing figures have on a US show’s chances of renewal?
The answer seems to be ‘very little’ in the short term at least. Overseas ratings are looked at by the owners of a US made show, but they need a network first and foremost to fund it. So if your a US production company making an English speaking show, your naturally going to seek out a US network for the largest English speaking audience to pay for the shows initial production. If the show falters on the US network, it’s going to be a much tougher sell to an overseas network.
The ‘Dreaded’ Nielsen Ratings…
There are a lot of people that rally against the US Nielsen ratings system, and a lot of misconceptions about it. One of the issues with sci-fi shows i think is they are broadly watched by a younger audience who tend toward recording shows on DVR’s or watching online. Nielsen do actually count online and DVR figures BUT they count less than shows that are watched live. Why? Well, it’s pretty simple – for the network, it’s less about how many people have seen the show itself, and more about how many have seen the adverts. As a basic principle, Adverts = money and money = your show getting renewed.
So, the system is understandably has a bias towards shows the audience might watch live. Unfortunately that tends to be the sort of programme your actually not that bothered if you see or not, or it’s ‘event tv’ where you don’t want to be behind everyone else, possibly so you can go online and chat about it after it’s aired (this is why we have so much ‘reality tv’…) It’s less an issue with the Nielsen rating system itself, but more a problem with how the network gets money from the advertisers. You could have made the greatest TV show in the world, but if everyone is recording it on a DVR and fast forwarding through the ads, that’s not a huge amount of use to a network who are trying to sell the ad space. The Nielsen ratings job is to calculate the financial worth of a programme, not the cultural worth or quality of it. Okay, it’s might not be perfect, but it’s not really fair to blame Nielsen for doing the job it’s designed to do.
So what can they do about it?
There are some solutions networks have been trying, such as a product sponsoring a show with ‘sponsored by’ ads for products wrapping the intros, outtros and ad breaks in shows which has been reasonably successful. Also in the UK we’ve recently had a relaxation of the product placement rules for TV shows, working on the basis that if the product is in the show, your not going to fast-forward through it! However, product placement does come with it’s own issues for a sci-fi show. Seeing someone on an alien planet reaching for a cool refreshing Coke rather pulls you out of the world the show’s production team have gone to great lengths to create!
There are alternative revenue models to the advertising solution. Subscription services like HBO rely on people paying a monthly fee rather than adverts. This is why a lot of the best quality programming you find in the US tends to be on HBO, as quality programming is HBO’s currency. If the programming is bad, people won’t pay for it. However, if every channel was pure a subscription model, you’d have a lot less channels, or an astronomical monthly bill… Of course we in the UK also have the BBC which doesn’t have these issues as we pay for it via the license fee. Trying to avoid opening a huge license fee shaped can of worms here, but it is a system that allows the Beeb to take risks you might not get on commercial channels – some which pan out like ‘Life on Mars‘, some which don’t, like ‘Outcasts‘.
Another solution we’ve seen on the increase recently, particularly with UK shows, is multiple international networks picking up the tab. Primeval for example was brought back from the brink by a deal between ITV, BBC Worldwide, Watch, Impossible Pictures, and German broadcaster ProSieben. Similarly the latest series of Torchwood was made possible by a deal between the BBC and US network Starz. I suspect there are a number of network execs watching closely to see how this sort of deal pans out for the networks involved. If it works, it’s a solution you might see happen more more and more, with multiple international networks sharing the cost and the risk.