Do the Renewals of Shows Like Hannibal, From Dusk Till Dawn, and Penny Dreadful Suggest Changes in the Ratings System?

By | September 19, 2014

Earlier this week, I posted an article suggesting that old system of determining a television show’s success based on the overnight ratings is still firmly in place and working against any of a number of science fiction and fantasy series.

However, change is coming.

How do I know?  The television industry keeps insisting on it.  And we would have no reason not to believe them would we . . .

Well, the truth is that I do believe change is coming, if for no other reason than the fact that there is so much more data out there now.  We have the delayed viewing statistics, Nielsen tracking Twitter activity related to a live broadcast of a program, General Sentiment tracking the same across several social network sites, and more.  We also have the networks pushing the Live+7 numbers (which track live viewing as well as delayed viewing up to seven days), though how much of that is a way to try and mask the declines the broadcast nets have been suffering the last few years is hard to say.  In any case, there is definitely a desire to expand the numbers that should be included in determining whether a show is a success.  But there is also one big barrier and that is the television industry itself.  As with any long-entrenched industry, there is an inherent resistance to change and we can definitely see that in the fact that the old-school overnight ratings can still be used to fairly accurately predict whether or not a show will be cancelled.  And I really don’t see that changing much this year or the next, but I do believe that change is not too far off.

Over the past few seasons, we have seen shows that beat the odds and received renewals despite low ratings.  For these shows, other factors were considered, some of which I mentioned above, some of which I expand upon below.  These shows don’t necessarily indicate major shifts in direction, but I do believe they give hints to the change of course that is to come:

hannibal-nbc-cancelledHannibal (NBC) – This series is now heading into its third season despite pulling ratings that would typically have assured cancellation on one of the Big Four networks.  But Hannibal came into existence under an international production arrangement that makes the show cheaper for NBC and also places more emphasis on its international viewership.  I believe that we will see more of this sort of thing going forward, especially used to plug up low viewership timeslots on the schedule (though it didn’t work to well for last season’s Dracula).  In addition, Hannibal also made a concerted effort to establish an online presence, spearheaded by showrunner Bryan Fuller.  That acts as an additional (and very cheap) means of promotion and helps get the word out about the show.  And as more advertisers turn their attention to services like Twitter to target their products, shows that have established themselves in the social media definitely have strong appeal.  Hannibal is also part of a world-renown franchise and makes it a marketable commodity on DVD and in syndication if it produces multiple seasons.

Nikita (CW) – This CW entry was struggling in the ratings during its second year, yet still received a third season renewal.  It was moved to Friday nights during that season where it barely registered in the ratings (with new episodes sometimes topped by twenty year old Dora the Explorer reruns) , yet still it received a renewal for a fourth and final season.  Part of the reason that it stuck around was that it aired on the fifth place network which has typically stood by their shows once they get past their first season.  But another–and even more important–factor was its international audience.  The Nikita character originated from France and had developed a worldwide following, and apparently that international attention helped keep the series afloat on The CW.  Previously, the worldwide audience was rarely considered a factor by the broadcast networks for keeping a series from cancellation, but it allegedly played a part with this one (and supposedly also Beauty and the Beast, though I’m convinced the producers of that show have compromising pictures of a network executive somewhere).  Interestingly, the renewal did not get Nikita to a syndication friendly count of episodes for the U.S. market, but that number is possibly lower for an international run, and also an indication that The CW is more willing to offer a shortened final season for a series rather than cancelling it outright and leaving the fans hanging.

Penny Dreadful (Showtime) – This series debuted on Showtime in May to what many might consider dreadful ratings (sorry, couldn’t resist), especially when you compare its 0.3 average to Game of Thrones’ 3.6 or even True Blood’s 2.2.  But the premium cable channel gave the horror series the greenlight for a second season anyway, and fairly early in its run.  Of course channels like Showtime and HBO pay less attention to the overnight ratings because they are not selling advertising time to sponsors.  Their original shows are considered a success if they draw good buzz (along with subscribers) to the network and they monitor the total viewership of an episode which includes encore showings in the same week of a new episode’s broadcast.  Plus, the premium channels also give more weight to DVR and internet streaming.  Still, the low overnights suggest that the show was not drawing large viewership to the network and seemed to indicate a dubious future when it bowed.  But it did start to develop some buzz among critics and genre fans and apparently Showtime felt they had a strong enough property that they were willing to give it time to build an audience.

from-dusk-till-dawn-the-series-cancelledFrom Dusk Till Dawn (El Rey) / Salem (WGN) – Both of these shows are initial attempts by their networks to provide original programming, From Dusk Till Dawn on a new network targeting Hispanic audiences and Salem on an established cable channel trying to expand beyond its slate of repeats.  Both shows barely registered in the ratings based on the overnights (though Salem pulled a decent 0.5 score for its debut), but neither network was looking for immediate ratings success with these entries.  El Rey is trying to establish its brand, so they were looking more for decent buzz which the show did garner.    Salem is WGN’s attempt to compete with TBS and TNT and the like with original programming and it appears to have brought some attention to the network.  At some point, these shows’ networks (and their sponsors) will probably want to see higher ratings numbers, but then they may have been produced on a lower cost model that is less reliant on upfront advertising.

Another series worth mentioning is CBS’ Extant, even though its future looks somewhat dubious at this point.  For that show, the network partnered with Amazon and shared production costs in exchange for exclusive streaming rights (they also received the same rights to another CBS series Under the Dome).  That system of sharing revenue would mean that Extant‘s fate should not be as closely tied to the overnight ratings.  Unfortunately, though, those numbers came in considerably low (it has only averaged a 1.1 rating) and CBS likely will bow out of the partnership now that it has completed its first season.  Amazon, might have the option of seeking a new partner or carrying on with the show on its own, but I’m not certain if they would be able to afford its production costs.  It will be interesting to see how this one plays out, though.

So do these shows mentioned above suggest a change of course for the television networks and a challenge to the tyranny of the overnight Nielsen ratings?  Or am I possibly just reading too much into (or completely misreading) them and will the status quo remain intact?  It’s hard to say for sure at this point, but I will be keeping a close eye on it this season.  So be sure to stay tuned to this site to see how things unfold and how the current crop of science fiction and fantasy shows will be impacted.

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