The Great TV Vaguening
The crazy status quo of not knowing how popular TV shows are
Andrew Schulz is, in my opinion, the best comedian at the moment. And if he’s not the best overall, then he’s at least certainly the best at crowd work. But that’s all less pertinent to this post than the industry insights his career has informed.
Schulz works both within standard institutional entertainment and independently from it, depending on the medium or the situation. In between the standup, he’s been on hit podcasts and YouTube shows that boast millions of views. During the early pandemic, as many mainstream entertainers receded from the public consciousness, Schulz’s star rose on account of his ability to martial those outlets to his advantage. In 2022 he made news by using his life savings to buy his comedy special back from a major streaming service, and self-funding his special to a handsome profit.
This is all a long way of saying, when Andrew Schulz offers a thought on where the entertainment industry is and where it could be headed, I listen. And so I keyed in on the following viral Twitter thread from July 21st, which is pasted in its entirety below:
Thoughts On The Hollywood Strike:
1) The real issue is that actors and writers want fair residual payments from the streamers.
In order to define what is fair the streamers will need to share how many people are actually watching their shows.
And here lies the problem…
2) My suspicion is that the streamers are refusing to share the viewership #’s NOT because they’re being cheap BUT because no one is watching AND revealing extremely low viewership would kill the stock price.
3) If most of these streamers are losing money in an effort to gain market share the ONLY justification for their spending is their stock price being high.
Once that stock price tanks with the REAL viewership #’s the streamers will have to CUT BACK ON SPENDING.
4) WAY LESS SHOWS will be green lit and the budgets for those shows will be severely reduced.
Which means… WAY LESS ACTING GIGS AND WRITING GIGS.
5) If the actors and directors strike is successful by making the streamers release their real viewership…
The strike will essentially force the streamers to hire less actors and directors.
So they’re striking themselves out of work.
Just a hunch tho
That’s scattershot but also on target. If you want a granular look at the situation, I’d cite this from the great Stratechery newsletter.
I personally can’t speak to the exact dynamics of the writers/actors strike, but I’m drawn to how this vagueness of measurement is so central to the strife. The impressively knowledgeable entertainment industry reporter Matt Belloni uses the term “success metric,” in reference to a lack thereof.
Belloni, in a June 7th Bill Simmons podcast, on writers striking because the streamers offer no upside for success:
How do you measure success if they're buying up your upside before you even do the show? Well, that's why these writers are on strike. They want a success metric built in to the streaming model and the streamers don't want that.
In the streaming era, the writers and now actors are grasping for a “success metric,” only to run into so much opacity and uncertainty regarding their value. Their cause is about the money, sure, but also about something deeper than dollars. Theirs is an industry that selects for people who like attention. If there’s no trustworthy metric to know if you’re indeed popular, then you don’t really know if you’re getting it.
And to broaden the frame, it’s nice for everyone else to have a sense of what’s actually popular. You can be apathetic about what’s trending in the culture, but yes, I like knowing, thanks to that old traditional metric of “box office,” that Barbie and Oppenheimer are big hits. Beyond these trusted metrics giving writers at the New York Times and other publications fodder for theories, there’s a social value to a shared sense of what’s happening, even on aspects of culture that could be dismissed as frivolous.
The streaming era has been disruptive to television economics overall, but also to this bigger, broader cultural issue of just knowing what’s resonant in American society. That’s a topic that tends to fascinate me, sometimes to the chagrin of others, but I’m not the only person with an interest, it seems.
It’s also a topic I’ve covered less in recent years, mostly due to the confounding factor of streaming. As I’ve written, we’re now in the viewership Wild West, a time in which HBO can ludicrously claim that Euphoria has an astounding 16.3 million viewers, on the basis of its self reported streaming numbers. In 2002, you could convincingly say that The Sopranos was a massive hit because Nielsen told us 13.4 million people watched its season premiere. Now, Nielsen tells us that 254K people watched the season premiere of Euphoria on linear television, but Variety will run with HBO’s number of 16.3 million. And who’s to say what the real number is, really?
Let us pause right here and just take stock of how bizarre this now “normal” state of affairs is, this new acceptance of an industry that can’t comprehensively track its own success or failure. Nielsen started in televisions back in 1950, after having pioneered its ratings services for radio in the previous decade. You could quibble with the methodology, but for most of my, my parents’ and my grand parents’ lifetime, the ratings were a respected proxy for how a show was doing.
The Internet, and the social media it spawned, was supposed to add data and knowledge. In Mark Zuckerberg’s oft-repeated tagline for the social media era, we were on the way to being “more open and connected.” Better technology would lead to more transparency, bonding populations over shared enthusiasms. That was the idea at least, and few in 2010 saw any other sort of future. Instead, paradoxically, tech innovation has led to opacity in this industry, especially in regards to television. Streaming has washed away the old shared standards. And sports, which had been somewhat insulated from these effects due to its disproportionate role on linear television, is starting to join the Great Vaguening.
Sports and Viewership
You might assume that the Super Bowl, the event most closely tracked by major advertisers, would deliver the clearest sense of a success metric. Perhaps that used to be the case, but now, not so much. Take this story from May 2nd, titled, “Super Bowl LVII Adds 2 Million Viewers After Nielsen Restatement.”
The NFL noticed a disparity in the number of people said to be watching the game via NFL Network, and asked Nielsen to review the matter, the executive says. That sparked a discovery of a glitch in how the content was encoded so it could be recognized by Nielsen’s systems. Nielsen then discovered a second problem in the tabulation of people who watched the program via “out of home” methods — such as a TV at a bar, hotel or restaurant.
Perhaps this was all proper quality control, but it fits a certain modern dynamic. The NFL and Fox lobbied the arbiter, leading to the arbiter coughing up 2 million viewers. Right or wrong, it appears that Nielsen was effectively nagged into doing this.
The “out of home” metric itself is also something of a cough-up, in that it’s a response to pressure from broadcasters who craved better numbers during the pandemic. Traditionally, televisions outside of homes (in hospitals, airports, bars, etc.) weren’t tracked, and perhaps they should have been. But the inclusion of such audiences presented an illusion of growth, as though every player in the NFL suddenly started measuring their height with helmets on and declaring themselves bigger. Out of home (OOH) has delivered a roughly 10 percent inflationary boost to major sports events, leading to the various leagues touting new (fake) records and improvements, a coup from the broadcaster perspective. Funny enough, when I talk with people in advertising firms, the ones who fought OOH inclusion, they tell me that their rates are largely unchanged. The PR push to pump the numbers hasn’t returned an obvious economic benefit.
So why did Nielsen buckle and accept the inflation? It might have something to do with broadcast networks paying Nielsen vast sums of money, far more of a haul than the advertising shops shell out. While one might assume that paying for Nielsen is roughly analogous to your paying for LinkedIn or what have you, it’s a different deal entirely: Networks actually give upwards of $100 million to Nielsen, a reality that creates certain incentives.
But the out of home boost isn’t the only factor confounding reported numbers. Looking at the Super Bowl again, you start to see the creep of “streaming” vagueness. NBC, for example, boosted their media-reported Super Bowl viewership simply by inventing their own metric. As I detailed:
NBC didn’t get the best matchup for the 2022 Super Bowl, but at least they hosted a great game. In its aftermath, they ran to the presses, boasting a 15.9 million-person viewership increase over that 2021 tilt between Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes. The numbers were reported uncritically in many a publication, but if you dug deep enough, you stumbled upon a curiosity: NBC claimed to have doubled what CBS had garnered in streaming the year before. Just managed to 2X it somehow out of nowhere, as though it’s common for a Super Bowl viewership tranche to suddenly multiply.
The long story short here:
So basically, NBC’s streaming number stayed pretty flat versus last year, and they invented a way to pretend it doubled. Considering that NBC’s massaged number was reported widely, absent qualification, I wonder how far they could have gone in this direction.
Niselsen Streaming Vagueness
Obviously, streaming represents a real and growing slice of the viewership pie and it should be counted by Nielsen in some capacity. It’s happening, to a degree, though the circumstances are, again, vague. Take the 2023 vs. 2022 NBA Finals viewership back end numbers, which a source kindly sent over to me. The public doesn’t normally see these breakouts and in this case, the data is instructive. Generally, you can see that the 2023 NBA Finals viewership surprisingly, roughly equalled the 2022 NBA Finals viewership for a few games, despite 2023 featuring smaller market teams and less touted stars. Specifically, you can also see how it happened despite a seven figure drop in viewers tuning their standard TV sets to the Finals.