The recent cancellations of series such as WGN’s “Underground,” Netflix’s “Sense8” and “The Get Down,” as well as network series including “American Crime” led me to ponder last week whether, in the event that the Peak TV bubble gets popped, shows that star people of color might get hit particularly hard. I’m not alone in wondering about either the prospect of a bubble, about which Todd VanDerWerff wrote for Vox, or the prospect of a disproportionate impact, which Maureen Ryan addressed in Variety. And I was trying to articulate some larger thoughts on the subject, I realized I was having a hard time predicting what might happen, in part because it’s increasingly hard to know what makes a show successful anymore — and what might save it if it’s lagging.
Once upon a time, it would have been simple to answer that question. It would have been the Nielsen ratings, stupid.
But that’s no longer always the case. As VanDerWerff wrote, at least some networks think that, for example, “because viewership can be amortized over lengthy periods of time, it doesn’t really matter if the Twin Peaks premiere only drew 500,000 live viewers. For Showtime, the simple fact that subscriptions to the channel are up because people want to watch the series is the only thing that matters. If you want to watch Twin Peaks and are willing to pay for the privilege to do so, who cares if you want to do so at 9 pm on a Sunday?”
This is especially true for shows that are made by studios and aired by networks that are part of the same parent company. That’s the case for “Twin Peaks,” but not for “Underground.” And it’s not entirely clear to me what the revenue streams for a show such as “Twin Peaks” are going to be a year from now. Will Netflix continue to want the rights to stream it, since they have the first two seasons? Will Showtime want to sell streaming rights to “Twin Peaks,” or does letting another outlet have it make it harder to sell subscriptions to Showtime’s streaming service? And at what point do the different networks owned by big companies have to start selling bundled streaming services in order to get customers to pay up, as the Week’s Noel Murray suggested recently?
Despite these complexities, let’s say the new metric is subscriptions, which of course only tells us about the success of shows that air on premium cable networks or streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime (Amazon’s chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Post). Companies like Showtime may release that data.
But others, like Netflix, have remained relatively mum about what people subscribe for, and what they subsequently watch, even though they have incredibly granular data about viewer behavior. When “Sense8” was canceled, my impression was that viewers were surprised, and why shouldn’t they have been? The show inspired a vigorous online conversation, but in the absence of any numbers, it might well be that everyone who loved the series was part of one of those discussions. It’s entirely possible that what seemed like an iceberg was in fact an ice cube, bobbing merrily at the top of a cocktail.
And there are metrics beyond pure numbers. Late in May, Nielsen released some findings that suggested that viewers are more intensely engaged with television shows that feature Asian American characters. That means audiences are more likely to remember what happened in shows with Asian American actors, which in turn, Nielsen suggests, means they are likely to find ads that air during those shows memorable. This introduces an intriguing potential formula for TV networks: if you must choose between a higher-rated show without Asian American actors, and a lower-rated show with Asian American actors, which one is more valuable? And at what ratings figure does that calculus flip?
I truly don’t know the answer to these questions, and, except for when it comes to an unusually transparent network like FX, I don’t really know how monkey wrenches like critical acclaim, awards and social prestige function when they’re tossed into various networks’ and streaming outlets’ decision-making machines. I think they’re probably still figuring it out for themselves as TV settles into its new business model. I wish I could tell you how to save your favorite television show. I wish I could tell you whether it was going to survive in the first place.