— James Van Der Beek (@vanderjames) January 29, 2013
It’s Tuesday night. Without Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23.
A week has passed since we received the news that ABC yanked Apartment 23 from its lineup and offered no plans for the season’s remaining eight episodes. That was — and still is — heartbreaking enough. But now we discover that there are actually much higher ratings for the show than the traditional morning-after Nielsen numbers? (Over 50 percent??) Ugh.
This is nothing new. Shows’ ratings are constantly adjusted after their initial airdates to reflect DVR numbers. And yet, networks continue to make programmatic decisions largely based upon the overnights. This is not a sustainable system. Viewers are watching shows on their original airdates less and less. More people are catching television online, especially teens and young adults. Shows are prerecorded, watched on Hulu and accessed on networks’ own websites. Our television queues on Netflix are overpopulated with programs, both past and present. There is even a growing trend of people watching “old” shows (like Firefly and The X-Files) and live-tweeting their responses to it.
What’s more, this evolved way of watching television is becoming the “normal” way to consume programming. Just today, three of my Twitter friends tweeted about shows they were catching up on from the past two days, including Bunheads, Downton Abbey, and The Good Wife. Sure, recaps and reviews still hit the internet and Twitter feeds the day of or morning after a program airs. However, it seems that the majority of viewers are consuming television — even their favorite shows — via online streaming and digital recordings.
But again, this is old news. We all know this. So why hasn’t the television industry changed its ratings methodology?
Rhetorical. It’s safe to say that networks despise change. They are very slow adopters. For years now, they have had a system that worked. It was never perfect, but it was stable. And it worked with advertisers. The introduction of digital streaming has utterly reshaped the relationship between viewer and show. It would follow that networks would strategize ways in which to capitalize on this shift. To rework the triadic relationship between network, advertiser and viewer so that everyone receives a better experience — and certain shows have a better chance at remaining “on air.”
For instance, let’s take Apartment 23. It is not receiving high ratings in its Tuesday 9:30 time slot. The advertisers are unhappy because it paid for viewers they’re not getting. The network is unhappy because their advertisers are unhappy, so they pull Apartment 23 from Tuesdays and experiment with Sundays, and then return it to Tuesdays when Sundays flop even worse than Tuesdays. What’s left to do? Yank the show entirely. Despite its small yet fierce fan following. Despite the fact that it is one of the few comedies (like Ben and Kate and Community) that have dared to be different, a bit weird, strange and quirky. Despite its intelligent and sharp writing, and its female show creators (which are few in number enough as it is!)
What if, instead, Apartment 23 were moved fully online? Start with the remaining eight episodes of this season and release one episode a week on abc.go.com. Digital streaming allows advertisers to more precisely target viewers — far more so than general demographics of regular broadcasts. With online streaming, viewers’ habits (both televisual and browsing) can be tracked. Ads can be interactive. Networks could create synergy between specific ads and the episode, which can translate into transmedia and marketing opportunities. Already Hulu has started a few of these practices, and the site is quickly learning how to leverage viewer data while adding to the viewer’s overall experience.
ABC could use technology to track the number of online views over a seven-day period (instead of the current three) and provide a fuller picture of its viewing population. “Ratings” just might prove to be a shade more accurate than the overnights.
There are obviously several other financial issues to address with such a method. And, yes, I recognize that not everyone has a computer or mobile device. However, these are the new approaches to television viewing, advertising and ratings that networks need to adopt. Otherwise they will continue to fight against an outdated system, and more good shows will perish because of it. What’s more, their viewers will move forward with digitala technology, whether the networks and their advertisers move with them or not.