Change the Channel/Change the Medium

For those of you who may not be aware, I’ve been acting as a TV critic for the site Pink Raygun. My beat thus far has included the series Stargate Universe and the short lived superhero series The Cape. In fact, I just sent of my review for the last episode of the latter, and while I was writing it I got to thinking about TV shows and ratings.

A little background, so you know where I’m coming from. I stopped watching TV somewhere around 1999-2000. Not really sure at to an exact when — I just fell out of the habit and hadn’t missed it at all. I ended up dropping cable TV around 2000 when I realized I was throwing money away. I picked up FiOS TV last year partly because it could get bundled with my internet service, but also because broadcast TV switched to digital. I live in an area called Forest Hills — guess what the terrain looks like? Even with an antenna I had a hard time getting signals, because digital is an all or nothing medium. No static or anything like that, you either have a picture or you don’t. As a Steelers fan, this could not stand.

What does all this mean? It means I am NOT an expert on television programming, ratings, and the like.

But I do know numbers — I am a math geek after all.

What got me started on this was the coming end of SG:U and why the decision was made to kill the show. It has a loyal following, but the ratings weren’t high enough for the SyFy network to keep it afloat. If they’re an ardent follower of the Nielsen rating system, I can’t help wondering if they’re clinging to an obsolete metric.

As statistics go, the sample group for the Nielsen’s is anything but a proper sample. It’s not random – they approach households to volunteer, and only the ones that accept become part of the group. The total number Nielsen households measure about 0.02% of the houses that own televisions, which means programming is influenced by a very small minority. What might this “sample” not take into account?

Well, to start with, there’s the different features and services between providers. I have basic FiOS, which gives me a lengthy list of channels to choose from. On the other hand my parents have a very basic service through Comcast, which gives them maybe fifteen channels. I get the SyFy network, they don’t. If we’re both Neilsen households, that automatically screws up the ratings for shows like SG:U. Let’s not forget that some households still don’t have cable TV at all — just broadcast.

Recording technology also plays a role. From VCRs to TiVos to Hulu to NetFlix, we’ve become a culture that doesn’t need to sit down in front of the tube the same time every week to catch the latest episode of Grey’s Anatomy. We can also fast forward through the commercials. Hell, I’ve been known to skip out on a season of a show because I’ll expect the DVD to be released at some point.

And what about a family that just turns the TV on for background noise, without actually watching whatever’s playing?

This is how statistics get screwed up and how a decent show can get killed.

It left me wondering: would a show like Star Trek: The Next Generation, or Deep Space Nine survive after their first season in this day and age? Brand names aside, both shows had shaky starts (DS9 more than TNG), but went on to become good programs. I have to admit, I have my doubts that it would.

The medium of television programming is changing, and the internet is playing a part. Shows like The Guild and Awkward Embraces are broadcast on the web, and although they may be geared to the “geek” crowd, they’re examples of what can be done with the technology. It occurs to me that TV networks should be embracing this model, not fearing it. But by offering a series as a web cast, you do run into snags. Not everyone has internet access, let alone the high speed access that allows for streaming. In addition the network infrastructure might not be able to handle the load effectively, resulting in lag, lost connections and other such problems.

Another market also exists — that of direct-to-video. Yeah, I know, it’s the refuge of a lot of really schlocky SF and horror, but it still makes money for some outfits and occasionally you find a gem amongst the lot. The question is can a TV network like NBC make a show and offer it by the season solely as a DVD bundle? Combine that with webcasting and you have two powerful measures that can be much more accurate than the Nielsen’s. The first is the number of hits an episode gets when posted — and it might be possible to take it a step further to see if a viewer actually watched the whole episode — and the second is where people vote with their dollars and buy the discs.

It also gives network programming a chance to break from the standard paradigms of television, which can allow people to experiment with the tools of their trade. It might also allow them to end a show when its story has reached it’s natural conclusion, such as with the BBC’s Life on Mars. That show ran for only two seasons, but it didn’t die from ratings anemia. It ended because the story was finished. To me that’s a better alternative than a string of loosely connected 42 minute non-sequiturs that suddenly gets cut off because the ratings weren’t there despite a loyal fanbase.

The paradigm that dominates American television is to stretch a show for as long as possible until the ratings tank. That’s why we have so many vapid sitcoms and reality shows, in my opinion. If we, as viewers can shift that thinking to the model I described, it may be beneficial on both sides of the TV screen.

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