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All Your Favorite Shows May Be Cancelled: Why Bad Nielsen Ratings Should Be Great for Quality Television

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | April 23, 2012 |

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | April 23, 2012 |

We haven’t discussed ratings in a while here at Pajiba, not since “Community” was granted its return and came back initially with stronger than ever ratings. But now, the Thursday night NBC comedies — none of which, I believe, have been officially renewed — are bottoming out. How bad is it? Betty White’s “Off Their Rockers” is scoring better than every one of the Thursday night shows; in fact, it’s getting nearly double the viewers of “Community” and “30 Rock” combined.

— “Off Their Rockers” - 5.98 million

— “The Office” - 4.31 million

— “Parks & Recreation” - 3.53 million

— “30 Rock” - 3.16 million

— “Community” - 2.91 million

What the hell is at play here? There have been several pieces come out over the last week discussing the overall ratings erosion of network television. It’s not just the Thursday night shows, although those numbers look positively anemic. “The Office,” the highest rated scripted program on NBC is now barely receiving as many viewers as “Community” was when it was on the bubble. The biggest reason for its decline is because it’s been increasingly terrible, but why is Betty White’s show doing so much better by comparison?

Old people. What many of these posts discussing ratings erosion are picking up on is the manner in which we watch television. The average age of an old media television viewer on the networks is over 50. The only people who still watch television live, without DVRs and on actual television sets are old people, so the only viewers’ habits being recorded by Nielsen are old people’s. Tablets (like the iPad) are now the second most popular way to watch television, people are watching recorded shows outside the window in which they are rated by Nielsen (7 days), and people are watching on their laptops and IPhones. I mean, overall television viewership can’t really be down: Americans aren’t actually reading more books and spending more time outside, they’re just watching television in a different manner. But until the networks figure their shit out, our programming options will continue to be dictated by the television watching habits of your grandparents.

Is it even possible that only 3 million people are watching “Community”? It’s the most popular show on the Internet, and there’s a lot of people on the Internet. Like, all of them.

So, what will it mean for NBC’s Thursday night lineup? Will all four shows (plus “Up All Night”) be canceled? It’s highly unlikely. NBC must understand that viewership is not fairly represented by Nielsen ratings. The problem is convincing advertisers of that. Theoretically, this actually should be good for advertisers: People who watch television on the Internet can’t fast-forward through commercials. You have to watch them. I watched “Awake” (a pretty great, under appreciated show) and “Best Friends Forever” (a decent sitcom) on NBC’s iPad app this weekend, and I saw the same two commercials maybe 8 times a piece. I haven’t seen a commercial on television since the NFL ended its season, but I practically know the Target ad that NBC is running by heart, as well as the promo its running for “American Ninja Warrior.” That’s effective adverting, but as we know about Internet ads, the rates are much lower. That’s absurd; it’s a much stronger message to a younger demo with more discretionary spending at a much lower rate. Networks should charge more for Internet ads, and they should encourage viewers to watch more television on their iPads, Laptops, and iPhones because there’s no fast-forward button. Shows that generate larger online followings should thus be rewarded. Nielsen should be abandoned, and ratings system should better reflect online viewership: It’s a win for convenience, it’s a win for better programming, and it’s a win for advertisers. It’s really just a matter of convincing the networks — and their advertisers — of the new reality, so they will stop kowtowing to the elderly demo.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.