TV Upfront

Your Favorite Show is Going to Be Canceled... And It's All Your Fault

How Consumer Behavior Kills Shows Dead

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Emily VanCamp as Emily Thorne/Amanda Clarke on 'Revenge.' Would it hurt so much to catch up by VOD instead of your DVR?
Emily VanCamp as Emily Thorne/Amanda Clarke on 'Revenge.' Would it hurt so much to catch up by VOD instead of your DVR? Credit: ABC

With a little more than a month to go before the broadcast TV networks reveal their 2015-16 prime time schedules, the fate of a few dozen scripted series remains up in the air. Odds are, at least one of your very favorite shows won't live to see the fall, and without putting too fine a point on it, you -- yes, you -- are largely to blame.

Since the season began last September, 27 scripted broadcast TV shows have completed their runs, either for the season or forever.

Three have been renewed and will be back: ABC's "How to Get Away with Murder" and Fox's "Empire" and "Sleepy Hollow."

Ten have been canceled outright, including NBC's spy drama "Allegiance," ABC's "Manhattan Love Story" and CBS's "The McCarthys." Six, such as NBC's "Parks and Recreation" and CBS's "Two and a Half Men," have reached the end of their final episode order. And among the remaining eight, perhaps two (Fox's "The Mindy Project" and ABC's "Agent Carter") appear to have a sporting chance at earning a spot on the fall roster.

Given that recent seasons have seen 42% of all scripted shows get the ax, another 20 or so can be expected to join the no-hopers that have already disappeared from the airwaves. Historical precedent suggests that the season's new shows have the least promising prospects; in the complete seasons from 2011 through 2014, only 31% of the freshman scripted series on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox were renewed.

While there's no universal Mendoza Line that determines whether a show stays or goes, the data suggests that any scripted series currently averaging south of a 1.5 rating among adults 18-49 shouldn't buy any green bananas. (If you're joining us late, one ratings point here represents 1% of the 127 million Americans in the 18-to-49 age bracket.) The average rating for the 119 scripted broadcast series that have been canceled or otherwise discontinued since September 2011 is a 1.2.

This is where you become particularly important. As much as the networks like to trumpet the alleged value-enhancing properties of time-shifted deliveries and social-media chatter, these peripheral concerns aren't exactly keeping the lights on. The metric that holds the $14 billion national broadcast ad market together is C3 -- commercial ratings over the three days since a show first airs -- and the live-plus-same-day deliveries that are available the afternoon after a given air date are statistically congruent with that measure. (Per Nielsen, the average lift in a given show's 18-to-49 deliveries upon converting live-plus-same-day to C3 is just one-tenth of a ratings point.)

In other words, ratings remain the single-most important data point a network considers when deciding the fate of the shows in its prime-time lineup. There are other factors in play -- studio provenance, syndication prospects, etc. -- but ratings are where the rubber hits the road. Generating ratings points is pretty much the entire point of ad-supported television.

For an example of a show that isn't likely to find its way into the fall rotation, take ABC's Sunday night thriller "Revenge." Not only is the show the network's least-watched, lowest-rated scripted drama, but it also adheres to a serialized format that doesn't play particularly well in syndication. "Revenge" also would appear to have slipped below ABC's failure threshold; 18 episodes into its fourth season, the show is averaging a 1.1 in the 18-to-49 dollar demo. To put that into context, going back to 2011, the average rating for all renewed ABC scripted shows is a 2.4. On the other side of the ledger, the average demo for all canceled ABC shows in that same time frame is a 1.4.

While it's sweet that millions of people are watching "Revenge" on their DVRs -- the show doubles its 18-to-49 deliveries upon application of live-plus-seven-day data -- C3 ratings show that the time-shifters are also not watching the commercials much. As no guarantees are made against delayed deliveries in which the viewer skips the ads, all those bonus eyeballs may as well be filmed over with cataracts. Except for a few cases in which expanding audiences over a week can make a show a more attractive target for syndication, live-plus-seven numbers are practically meaningless.

Who to blame? You
Or, to put it even more bluntly: If you're time-shifting your favorite drama and you zip or zap through the ads, you're an accessory to show murder. The average commercial rating estimate captured in C3 is the only relevant part of the data stream; so long as you watch the ads, you could just as easily fast-forward through all the scripted content without putting a dent in that particular show's deliveries.

Which isn't to say that you can't play catch-up and support your favorite show at the same time. Video-on-demand is a perfectly fine option, as the platform typically doesn't allow for commercial avoidance, and networks are increasingly stacking more and more episodes on VOD for that very reason. As was demonstrated earlier this season, the premiere of Fox's "Gotham" gained nearly an entire ratings point in the 18-to-49 demographic upon application of C3, a direct function of the episode's big showing on Comcast's VOD service.

Another habit that's hurting your show: Viewing on a tablet or other device that isn't measured by Nielsen. There's a correlation between the surge in mobile viewing and the vertiginous drop in the number of young people who are watching linear TV. Sunday night alone saw a 14% year-over-year decline in the number of Americans age 18-to-34 who were tuned in. Again, it's great to be alive in a time where you can watch "Revenge" while riding the M7 bus down to Zabar's, but when your ad views can't be quantified, your viewing session effectively never happened.

Don't take our word for it. Here's NBC Universal President of Research and Media Development Alan Wurtzel, speaking Wednesday morning about the failure to capture non-traditional ratings: "The reality is, so much of [prime-time ratings declines] are a function of Nielsen's inability at this point to follow the new ways people are basically consuming content."

Appearing as a member of a Paley Center panel held in Manhattan on the future of TV, Mr. Wurtzel said the volume of invisible deliveries is daunting. "I would estimate that somewhere between 15% and 40% of viewing of various programs, depending on their composition, are not being measured," he said.

The measurement issue is not going away soon, and the frustration of those in the ad business is palpable. But migration to unmonitored platforms is only going to accelerate, which means the problem can only get worse before it gets better.

As far as your responsibility goes, you can at least defend yourself on one score. As a mortal being in thrall to the degradations of time, the greatest impediment to your support of your favorite TV programs is wholly beyond your control. The moment you blow out the candles on your fiftieth birthday cake, you become an abstraction (at best) to the scores of advertisers who only wish to target 18-to-49-year-olds. Reach the superannuated 55-year mark and you're a ghost, according to many. And ghosts don't buy things (no pockets).

It's not an ideal system -- selling against demos has always been a strange and artificial compromise, a stop-gap measure that evolved into the currency -- but them's the breaks. One day, every eyeball will be counted, every ad impression will be measured and perhaps even the buying power of people over 49 will be appropriately recognized, but that remains a hypothetical. In the meantime, if you want to support your favorite show, you could do worse than watch in real time and stick around for the ads. Perhaps think about buying some of the stuff featured in the breaks.

Oh, and: Die young.

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