As the final weeks of the 2007/2008 television season unfold, one theme keeps reappearing in news reports: We’re watching less TV.
While some shows have had increased ratings, most have suffered from lower ratings compared to last fall. Now, "American Idol" makes headlines not because of performances, but because fewer people, especially in key demographics, are watching than before.
Why is that? Decreased ratings have many causes, but what underlies them all is that television is undergoing a fundamental change that was highlighted — and maybe even accelerated — by the recent writers' strike.
The strike has taken much of the blame because ratings didn't really drop until after it occurred. Data from Nielsen, the company that tracks viewership, shows that "overall (TV) usage has not yet seen a real dramatic decline," as "up until the strike, we had not seen any drop in overall usage," according to Anne Kissel Elliot, Nielsen's vice president of communications. Because of that, she said, "I think it would be a little premature to use this season as a harbinger of things to come."
While lower ratings have resulted from the strike, blaming it alone is unfair. Joe Rhodes, a contributing writer for TV Guide, said the strike "provided an easy scapegoat for executives who don't want to be held responsible for the lower numbers. But even if there had been no strike and even if there had been a slew of spectacularly compelling new shows, the numbers would have continued to shrink. As they will next year and the year after that."
He attributes that to "fewer quality new shows" and "the increasing obsolescence of the ratings system. People are still watching TV, they're just not watching it in the same way or in a way that can be measured by the ACNielsen company."
Elliot confirmed, "There's no question that it's a rapidly changing environment and we're doing our best to keep pace with it. Given that television advertising is something like a $70 billion a year (industry), we have to make changes. But I think it's premature to say that you can't measure it at all."
Still, she said there has been significant change in recent years, especially as viewers have fled from network TV to cable, where there are hundreds of choices. That fragmentation of audience means lower ratings for some shows.
Viewers were encouraged to try cable during the three-month-long strike because those channels offered new content, according to Joe Fahs, co-founder of the television blog TVgasm. "The strike hurt not only because it starved the networks of new programming, but it pushed the viewers who wanted to watch TV to look for alternatives, and that alternative was things like cable. And even though the cable networks were showing a lot of repeats, those episodes would be new if people were just discovering them," he said.
The overall shift to cable may introduce some viewers to new shows, but it also means quality programming has a more limited audience. "Network TV is becoming a repository for more simple-minded comedies and reality television," said Eric Deggans, the TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times, while "very complex, big ticket dramas are on cable. … I think that's a loss because people who can't afford cable are going to end up being deprived of great television."
The strike's impact
The break caused by the strike also "allowed viewers to mentally 'check out' like they do every summer, and that's exactly when they start investigating new content on cable and the Internet," said Ben Mandelker, TVgasm's other founder. Just strike coverage alone impacted viewership. "Truth be told, there was actually a good amount of TV on this winter despite the strike, but in people's minds, there was nothing on because of all the strike coverage. It was the perfect way to drive viewers away," he said.
Worse, when shows returned in March and April, networks didn't communicate effectively to viewers. "Since the strike was over, I think there was a lot of confusion on when series were coming back," Fahs said. "People who read blogs have a better idea, but if I was a normal TV watcher, I would have just given up."
The shows that don't stand out may die premature deaths because the Internet is impacting TV. "With blogs, forums, discussion boards, and news media weighing on every little detail about a show, the tide can turn quickly," Mandelker said. "Bad buzz seems to have a larger impact than good buzz, and as we all know, bad buzz leads to bad ratings."
When viewers do tune in, it's increasingly on their own schedule, whether that's the result of renting an entire season of a show on DVD or just waiting a few days before watching a program recorded on DVR.
"The strike accelerated a fact of reality, that people are just choosing to watch shows when they feel like it," said Maureen Ryan, The Chicago Tribune’s TV critic. "People are really falling out of the habit of watching something on a weekly basis."
Yet what people watch on a weekly basis is exactly what ratings measure. Do they even matter in an era of iTunes, online streaming, DVDs and DVRs?
Ironically, the strike occurred in part because people are watching less television on their TV sets, and writers demanded a share of profits from current and future distribution on new platforms.
"We're headed for a make-your-own-pizza video world," said TV Guide's Rhodes. "How many people happen to be watching NBC or Showtime at 9 p.m. on Thursday will be the least important statistic, virtually meaningless. Which is why the writers’ strike had to happen. Residual checks will continue to shrink. The revenue will all be from downloads."
New media has yet to replace old media in part because, as the St. Petersburg Times’ Deggans said, "there's nothing like sitting back in front of your 46-inch HD television." However, he said new platforms can be "bellwethers" that "reveal the hidden value of shows."
"The hope the networks have is that these other platforms will end up feeding viewers. ... Everybody knows that some form of digital media is going to be a huge player in the future of television, and you have to be ready for that," he pointed out.
Ratings still matter
Ratings may no longer completely measure TV viewership, but they are still critical to networks because they prove a show's value to its advertisers, who pay the bills.
"Right now, certainly one of the most important uses of Nielsen information is to help in negotiations between buyers and sellers for advertising," Nielsen’s Elliot confirmed.
Deggans said TV critics "judge the value of a show to a network that's putting it on," and "ratings can help tell you that. I think ratings can help tell you when the public is getting tired of something." Still, he cautions that they "can't be the only yardstick you use."
Even though Nielsen now tracks DVR usage, reporting how many people watch a show the day it airs (known as "live plus same day"), within three days ("live + 3"), or within seven days ("live + 7"), advertisers may not care if viewers saw their ads a week later.
"From what I've heard from some executives, live + 7, or even live + 3 is not as valuable as plain old live ratings because their thinking is if you didn't watch 'Grey's Anatomy' live, you didn't see the ad for the Patrick Dempsey (movie)," Ryan said.
However viewers watch TV, ultimately, only one thing really matters: Network executives "are just paranoid about losing that ad money. That's what drives the train," Ryan said. "Everything we feel emotionally tied to, it's all about making money."