The Circle Game: Geek TV and Ratings

Every geeky TV fan has a story: A beloved series that teetered on the brink of cancellation, and was either barely rescued, or managed to topple over onto the great scrap heap. Perhaps more than any other genre, geek TV is incredibly sensitive to the whims of ratings, and the slightest whiff that things are going south can take even a show that’s adored and critically acclaimed and chuck it out the window.

I, of course, have been a victim of this a few times over. Most recently, Caprica, one of the most complex, operatic series ever to hit TV and something I completely adored, just couldn’t sustain high enough ratings to go beyond one season.

Strangely enough, however, Caprica’s ratings were better than many of the other shows on its network (Syfy.) So what tipped the balance?

TV Production: Contracts. Contracts, Contracts

First, a bit of explanation of how TV works, for the uninitiated: As with movies, distributors (studios/networks) contract with production companies to make the content. Each distributor contributes a certain amount of funds to make the production happen, in exchange for the right to distribute (and therefore make money from) the end product. Most of these contracts are limited in what the distributor can do with the end product: First-run theater showings/episodes, etc. The production companies themselves retain copyright and future distribution options, and may actually contract with other distributors before the show/film is ever made for post-first-run options. In other words, most of the time, the studios/networks don’t own the movie/show. They just rent it for a while.

A case in point, to explain how this works:

One of my favorite shows is a silly little dinosaur/time-travel adventure series called Primeval. Produced in the UK by a company called Impossible Pictures, it’s relatively low-budget by US standards, but fairly expensive as productions go over there. Because of the expense compared to the revenue it was making for its home channel (ITV), it got cancelled after series 3. A few months later, however, it was resurrected, by a crazy deal involving not just ITV, but BBC Worldwide (which distributes UK shows around the world, including to BBC America), a digital (pay) channel called Watch and German channel ProSieben. Each distributor contributed part of the ~$20 million necessary to produce 13 new episodes of the show, and each contracted to have exclusive rights to air the show in its territory. The interesting twist with this one is that ITV, the show’s original distributor, only took the first-run rights for the first seven episodes (called series 4), and the digital channel, Watch, took the first-run rights for the second half (series 5.)

Such cobbling-together of funding/distribution isn’t unheard of, but it is fairly rare. And one of the reasons it worked in this case is that ITV couldn’t have sustained the show on its own. The network’s target demos (the type of people who watch the channel) just aren’t quite right for this particular show, so it doesn’t get very high ratings for them compared to their other shows. However, the international distributors have had great success with it, and wanted to keep it going. Badabing, big distributor group hug and 13 glorious hours of dinotastic goodness.

(Whether this sort of deal might happen again, and give the show another series remains to be seen. ITV’s ratings for series 4 were somewhat under target, and ratings for the rest of it are still pending.)

We Are All Slaves to Nielsen

Now, as to why ratings matter so much.

Movie studios make their money via ticket and DVD sales (although the latter is usually handled by a home video arm, rather than the main studio.) TV channels, on the other hand, make their money in two ways: Subscription fees (cable, and in the UK, the TV license fee which goes to the BBC) and advertising.

How much the TV channel in question can charge advertisers for airtime during their shows depends entirely on ratings. The lower the ratings, the less they can charge. On the other hand, ad time for something with viewer numbers huge as the Super Bowl can cost a fortune.

But it’s not just a simple numbers-in-numbers-out equation. Two other factors come in: Demographics (you may have a lot of viewers, but they’re not the kind who spend money on high-ticket advertiser products) and the cost of the show’s production.

This is where the geek-show dead pool comes in. Virtually all geek-friendly shows have to have high budgets. Swords, sorcery and spaceships (and dinosaurs) don’t come cheap; not as cheap as a soundstage-shot sitcom, and definitely not as cheap as a reality show (which has much lower expenses for creative, talent, costumes, etc.) So even though your favorite time-travel show might be bringing in viewers, if those numbers aren’t high enough to bring in enough ad revenue to fund the production? Sayonara.

Now, for channels that don’t have advertising, such as HBO? Slightly different story. What they’re able to fund depends entirely on subscription revenue. This is somewhat ratings related, in that ratings will indicate whether subscriptions are likely to go up or down depending on that program’s popularity, but it’s not nearly as critical as advertising-dependent distributors.

Another case in point: HBO’s Game of Thrones vs. Fox’s Fringe. Both geeky shows, both with similar audience demos, and not terribly far off from each other, ratings-wise. Yet Fringe had to fight hard to get a season-4 reup, while HBO bought another season of GoT after only the first epsiode had aired. HBO has incredibly deep pockets to begin with (not to mention a behemoth marketing machine)  and was thus only looking to see whether they were likely to lose subscribers based on that show’s popularity. Two million viewers, in other words, is plenty for them because they only have subscribers to be responsible to.

The BBC’s funding model is similar to this, though different in that it has deep enough pockets and the government stamp of approval that it can get away with taking a lot of risks in what it produces. It’s still subject to ratings–no sense in throwing money after something people don’t watch–but they’re still more willing to take chances on something unusual in the name of art because they have enough funds to potentially waste on such larks.

The other factor involved here is non-live viewing. Geeky viewers have a habit of not watching their shows live. They’ll DVR them, or pull them off of some streaming service or other a day later (and that’s if they’re doing it legally–illegal viewing numbers obvious don’t count at all.) When that affects a subscription channel, no big whoop. When it affects an advertiser-driven channel? Bad. Advertisers pay to have eyeballs on their commercials. They don’t pay to have people skipping through them with the remote. So even if all other things are equal, advertisers are going to be more willing to support a show that has a live-viewing-heavy demo (competition reality shows, stuff that appeals to older adults, etc.) Which, to no-one’s great surprise, is why the networks are full to the gills with reality and procedurals. They may not be beloved by the most people–or the smartest ones–but they’re beloved by a group that advertisers adore. So there ya go.

But Why Did My Show Get Cancelled?

Now, all that said, you can probably guess what happened with Caprica. It may have brought in the same ratings as one of Syfy’s dumb reality shows, but the expense of producing it (name cast, massive costume budget, CG in virtually every frame) simply outstripped the show’s ability to earn its keep. It got great DVR numbers, for instance, but no advertiser wants to toss their money down the drain on that. The number of live-airing viewers just wasn’t enough.

The same, of course, is true for dozens of other shows in recent years. Too expensive + not enough live viewers = cancellation.

The remaining factor in this mess is the other side of advertising: Marketing. And that’s something I’ll get to in a later post.


About Shawna (A Mediated Life)

Writer, singer, parent, fan, media maven, and general ne'er-do-well. Fierce protector of the rights of the disadvantaged and endless pontificator on subjects both ridiculous and sublime.
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