“Unfortunately awards don’t tend to equal ratings on TV” – Syfy on Twitter in response to the question “Now that SGU has won some awards, will you bring it back from stasis?”
There is something seriously wrong with that statement: “Unfortunately awards don’t tend to equal ratings on TV”. Something so wrong that it cannot be distilled into 140 characters, so instead of replying to the poor guy who runs the SyFy channel’s twitter account and getting some stock answer about ad sales in return, I thought I’d take to Tumblr which is where pretty much all my rants go nowadays.
Isn’t that an awful picture of today’s society, that not enough people watch award winning television to keep it on the air? For one thing, this shows how outnumbered we viewers with actual taste are by the casual viewing majority. There are more people out there in the world who regularly watch reality television about the lives of the daughters of the guy who defended OJ Simpson than who watch award winning scripted television. People, on the whole would rather watch Jersey Shore or American Idol over Community or Fringe and that is sickening.
But the thing is, it’s easy to complain about people with bad taste, it’s easy to blame the casual TV viewer, who sits down at the end of the day and watches crap because they don’t really care what they’re watching. It’s easy because we’ve been trained to do it. We’ve been told, year after year by all the major networks that our shows have been cancelled because of low ratings, because not enough people watch them. And we blame the people, we blame the networks too of course but on the whole it just pisses us off that no one else cares enough to watch good TV. We bemoan every new reality show, every talent show, every new series of Two and a Half Men. Why should they be given airtime when my programme was so clearly better? Why do the ignorant masses get what they want, when I’m stuck with only half a season of Firefly? But it’s not their fault, the idiots watching crap TV. It’s not the fault of the people who make the crap TV either. It’s not even the Kardashians’ fault, although I’d like it to be.
It’s the system. The system is broken.
Yes, we’ve all known that the Neilson rating system is shit for a while now. Not only does it only take into account a relatively small, random sample of people but it also completely ignores anyone watching online and DVD sales. Now, considering that a hell of a lot of people watch the majority of their television online, that ignores a rather large portion of a show’s actual audience. However, the Neilson system isn’t designed to show how many people are watching a certain programme, it’s designed to tell networks how many people are watching the adverts. NBC doesn’t care if anyone is watching Community, they care if you’re seeing the adverts that they get paid to show whilst Community is on. That’s why they use the Neilson system. It’s about adverts and it’s about money. Watching a show online, even legally – say on NBC’s own website, doesn’t generate ad sales and neither does buying the DVD. Online viewing and DVD sales only tell the networks that you like the programme and they don’t give a shit whether you like the programme. They just want you there, every Friday night at 8:30 watching their channel, so they can make Coca Cola pay more for advertising. So when SyFy tells you that Stargate Universe was cancelled because it didn’t get enough ratings, they’re not saying not enough people watched SGU, they’re saying that they couldn’t charge more for commercial airtime, that Coca Cola wouldn’t give them enough money to show their advert in the breaks of a show that wasn’t pulling as high numbers as Jersey Shore.
And yes, of course television is a business. Networks need money to make programmes and the bulk of that money comes from ad sales. I know that, I understand that. But surely there’s a problem when the way you fund your product becomes the priority. Surely there’s something broken, something inherently wrong, when you discard a good end product in favour of mediocrity. Surely advertisers should want their client’s name attached to a good product. But of course, it doesn’t work like that. We’ve become a society who favours profitable mediocrity over niche quality. We choose money over art again and again, and that’s why good television gets cancelled.
I’m calling for a revolution. People probably won’t listen, hell people probably won’t even see this post, but I’m calling anyway. To borrow a phrase from Aaron Sorkin and his new show The Newsroom – “ratings shouldn’t drive content, content should drive ratings”. We need a complete overhaul of how networks do business. We need to start putting value on quality again. We need to keep making good television and trust that people will catch on, that people aren’t all idiots who’d rather watch crappy reality TV. Take a chance on a good idea for once, and if people aren’t watching, actually advertise it. Don’t cancel something after half a season without even trying to get a wider audience’s attention. Make a good product and let people know that it’s good and then trust that quality will win out in the end. Networks need to grow their souls back, they need to actually stand for something again, and stop selling out their principles to the highest bidder. They need to side with the passionate minority once in a while. They need to realise that maybe sometimes it’s better to have 30% of the audience who love a show, who’ll watch it every single week, who’ll buy the DVDs, the BluRays, the merchandise – than 70% who couldn’t care less, who don’t even know who makes the thing they’re watching and who wouldn’t care if you told them. They need to start valuing loyalty, they need to recognise that the people watching Community every week who sang NBC’s praises every year they renewed were a much more valuable audience than the guy who gets home from work and leaves the TV on the same channel all night because he can’t be arsed to look for the remote. They need to see fans as important again, they need to recognise that the people watching their channel at 8:30 on a Friday, aren’t going to be there if they cancel their favourite show and they are far less likely to come back for something new. Networks need to value quality over profit margins. They need to realise that they’re not just making stuff to fill in the breaks between the ads. They’re making art. Or at least they’re supposed to be.
They need to realise that “awards don’t tend to equal ratings” just isn’t good enough, that it just won’t cut it, that if they want to have any chance of competing with online content, with streaming and webseries, that if they want any chance of still existing in twenty years’ time – they’re gonna have to change the way they do things, they’re gonna have to change the system, they’re gonna have to start trusting in good TV again. Or else their audiences, their ratings are just not going to be there anymore.