Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Do TV Ratings Still Matter?

We are now in a golden age of original series television. This is a time that video content creators havedreamed about since, well, since way before they even thought of themselves as video content creators, let’s put it that way. Netflix, we cannot fail to note, has a $2 billion dollar annual content budget and has spent $100 million to make the critically praised House of Cards. Further, Amazon announced on Wednesday that they are launching their first original series pilots. Amazon Studios, which launched in November 2010, currently has 24 movies in development. Finally, the conversation – on Twitter, on Facebook -- nowadays regarding original video content is actually intelligent and about the quality of the content and not about the ratings. Are we living in Bizarro world? How did the TV geeks essentially turn the television business on its head?

The intense media interest regarding how well or how not so well original shows like “Arrested Development” and “House of Cards” have performed has led to some serious questions as to whether or not ratings in fact even still matter. Or maybe this is all just mental jiu-jitsu on the part of Netflix and, to a lesser degree, Amazon. If President Obama was “no drama” during the 2008 campaign, video streaming service Netflix is becoming “no ratings.” Just as the now-President refused to let his missteps become a part of his skillfully presented narrative, Netflix doesn’t like to talk about the ratings of its original programming. In so doing, Netflix is making the strongest possible public argument against television ratings while at the same time diverting our attention form, yes, ratings. Ten years ago not talking about ratings, now, however, it appears to be the way of all original programming going forward.

There are obviously several advantages to changing the conversation regarding the ratings. Money, for one thing: Netflix and Amazon are gambling big and throwing tremendous sums of money to make stunning original content. It is to the advantage of those companies not to get into whether or not they are getting their money’s worth – at least not so early in the process. To be fair, the conversation about the ratings, in this era of video content streamed across all manner of screens, is not nearly as urgent as, say, the total subscriber numbers, or hours viewed or even the social media conversation surrounding the video content . And yet … Netflix isn’t really forthcoming about that data either.

What constitutes a flop at Netflix? Apparently nothing, as they are not releasing their data. “A company propelled by consumer data, Netflix releases nothing about the number of streams for a particular show; or hours viewed; or deeper dives indicating how much a single series contributes to a subscriber bump,” writes David Goetzl on Mediaposts TVBlog. That having been said, the argument that the emphasis on ratings is a mistake is really quite extraordinary. It flies in the face of all previous ways of doing television.” It has been a mistake for [pay-TV] companies to talk about ratings, it creates performance pressure around these shows which is very unnecessary," Ted Sarandos argues in The Guardian. Wow.

John Herrman, in Splitsider in 2011, made a solid argument against the inaccuracies of Nielsen. I have argued, elsewhere, that Nielsen will probably one of the last old media gatekeepers to fall. It would appear that we are in the middle of a great questioning as to whether or not ratings reign supreme or are just a part of a complex new formula that measures the success of original video content. Are TV ratings irrelevant? Do TV Ratings still matter? Are social media conversations better metrics for the success of original programming? If not, then what the best ways of gaging the success/ failure of an original series? The jury is still out. However, it seems that so long as the conversation is about Neilsen, it is not about the tremendous amounts of money that Amazon and Netflix are throwing at brilliant creative types to make just the sort of television that TV geeks have yearned after for decades. And that, quite frankly, suits the suits at Netflix and Amazon quite just fine.

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