What’s Old Is New Again

January 21, 2016

In case you missed it, 24 is coming back, albeit without Kiefer Sutherland. The announcement comes as viewers are working their way through the re-booted Heroes Reborn, eagerly (?) awaiting the return of Mulder and Scully in The X-Files, prepping for CBS’ new Star Trek series – and still recovering from the end of the Hunger Games series and the re-appearance of Star Wars. Oh, and for fans of noir-ish quasi-cowboy series, Netflix has renewed Longmire for a fifth season.

Thankfully for those of us wondering whether the creative well is truly running dry, Netflix’ head Ted Sarandos was kind enough to provide some color on what caused them to renew Longmire. As it turns out, the service was generally pleased with the ratings (and more about those later), and they see the show as a splendid way of attracting an older demographic that apparently isn’t quite as enthralled with Jessica Jones as the millennials. What it comes down to is that a show doesn’t need to attract vast swaths of fans at a particular time and day to bring in revenues for a subscription service – it merely has to act as the anchor for a sufficient subset of the total audience to keep shelling out their monthly fee.  Makes perfect sense.

Though speaking of ratings, the Spat of the Week award is a tie between the aforementioned Netflix and NBC. The latter commissioned SymphonyAM to measure Netflix’ ratings, and see how they really compare to the venerable network’s numbers. Some of the results seemed rather favorable – 4.8 million adults in the 18-49 demographic for Jessica Jones, 3.9 million for Master of None, 3.2 million adults for Narcos – but the two sides immediately engaged in some rather bad-tempered back-and-forth. NBC asserted that this showed streaming services got no bigger or better audiences than broadcast networks; and Netflix asserted that, well, the numbers were just nonsense anyway.

What’s fascinating here is the collision of two completely different worlds, with an intermediary trying to bring them together. To all intents and purposes, NBC can have no real idea of their viewership: they rely, instead, on Nielsen to extrapolate the results they get from their large survey to come up with a universally-accepted number. Meanwhile, Netflix actually can know exactly who watched what, for how long, and when. SymphonyAM tried to split the difference by applying the survey method to Netflix.

What really matters in this, as reported by the Hollywood Reporter is that we are seeing “the key tension in the television business in 2016: How should success be measured and whose data should the industry trust?”  The TV marketplace has settled on Nielsen as the arbiter of audience, largely because there is no way to actually count TV viewers across the various platforms they use to get moving pictures on the screen. But as we move into an increasingly OTT world, the data is actually available; the real question now is how many viewers have to move online before those actual numbers gain the currency of the Nielsen GRP.

Perhaps the final word on this should go to John Landgraf of FX Networks, who declared the battle for content a state of “Moneyball”, and who publicly wondered why Netflix would need to be quite so secretive about their viewing numbers. “[T]here’s a perception,” he notes “that’s very carefully cultivated by Silicon Valley that essentially they’re going to take over everything” – and you get the sense that part of that cultivation is precisely in not participating in the same set of agreed-upon scorekeeping that the traditional players have tacitly agreed to.

So just as we’re seeing shows from years ago re-boot (and what is essentially a sequel to a movie series introduced 38 years ago), so the argument about how to define success bubbles back up to the top. Nielsen fought long and hard, and with often contentious times, to create a standard in an environment where statistical extrapolations were literally the only option.  Now that we are entering an era where real measurements, normalized for Internet delivery variability, are possible, it’s only a matter of time before a New Normal is established.