Why the definition of a 'hit' TV show has changed

Network shows get ratings that would have gotten them canceled decades ago, while streaming services like Netflix release few figures. How do we know now if a TV show is a success?

Eric Liebowitz/Netflix/AP
The Netflix show 'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,' starring Ellie Kemper, has generated plenty of buzz, but since Netflix doesn't release ratings, its actual viewership is unknown.

It's the adjective every TV executive wants in front of their program – a "hit" TV show.

In the past, those kinds of programs seemed easy to define. "Friends" was a hit. So were "Seinfeld," "M*A*S*H," and many others.

One of the biggest challenges is simply measuring the size of an audience. As audiences have atomized and the platforms, business models, and sources of TV content multiply, in today's changing TV landscape, even "success" has become difficult to define.  A "hit" on Netflix or Hulu for example, could be a dud on broadcast TV.

"I don't know if it's even possible to definitively say that any one show is a hit these days," says Aymar Jean Christian, assistant professor of communications at Northwestern University, in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

That's because for many Americans, watching shows only on a TV set or only on over-the-airwaves broadcast is a thing of the past. Major broadcast networks like ABC and NBC still produce plenty of shows, but cable networks like HBO and AMC have also gained popularity, while streaming services like Netflix and Hulu are producing programs that are challenging the idea of what a TV show even is – and they're winning critical acclaim, too.

Audiences are not just splintered by viewing platforms – TV or computer or smartphone – but also by time shifting. Even if your favorite show is on CBS on Tuesday night, what are the odds you watch it when it airs? Or do you turn on your digital video recorder (DVR) and watch it a few days or weeks later?

Nielsen, the famous tracker of TV show watchers and deliverer of ratings, has invented new metrics to try to keep up, with categories like "Live-plus-7," which includes those who, you guessed it, checked out a show within seven days of its on-air debut.

Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, remembers when a Nielsen rating was the final word on a show.

"It used to be so simple," Professor Thompson says. "Whether or not Nielsen had its statistical problems, ... everybody played by the game of the Nielsen numbers," he explains. "Whether you renewed a show or not? You looked at the numbers. Advertising rates were set by the Nielsen numbers. So whatever their statistical weaknesses may have been, they were the rules of the game."

Thompson notes that Nielsen ratings are still part of the conversation, even if they have a different place today.

"When you read the trades and entertainment magazines and stuff, they're still showing us rankings, showing who beat their time slot," he says.

As for the ratings (audience size numbers), the figures that even the most popular shows earn are ones that could have caused a show to be canceled decades ago.

"We have much more modest expectations to what we'll designate a hit than we did before, dramatically different," Thompson says. "There are network shows now that get numbers so low that it would have been absolutely unthinkable in the old days."

For example, the ratings for the first episode of "Seinfeld" ranked No.  14 during the summer it premiered (not even the regular broadcast season). That No. 14 audience is the same size as the top-rated TV show today, "Sunday Night Football," TheWrap reported in 2014.

"To underline that: Today’s top show of the year ties the No. 14 show of the summer in 1989, an era when summer was considered a TV dead zone," TheWrap writer Tim Molloy wrote.

Nielsen ratings still play a role for cable shows, where viewers find "hit" programs like AMC's "The Walking Dead" and HBO's "Game of Thrones." Those two in particular can match and sometimes beat the ratings for today's broadcast shows. That trend isn't going away, Thompson says.

"Overall, broadcast are still delivering, on average, higher numbers than cable," he says. "But there are more and more exceptions to that and I think there will be more and more as we go."

Still, TV viewers might still be surprised at how small an audience is for a show that is considered a hit on cable. Take AMC's "Mad Men," which is one of the most acclaimed shows in recent years: The series finale of the show last year brought in just 3.3 million viewers. By comparison, the season finale of Fox's hit show "Empire" this past spring brought in more than 10 million viewers.

"We called 'Mad Men' a hit," Thompson says. "...Hit now doesn't mean the total cultural penetration that television hit meant [in decades past]."

And this leaves out TV shows whose popularity is opaque. Netflix, for one, has produced Emmy-winning content in recent years such as "House of Cards" and "Orange Is the New Black." Are those hits? We don't know. The company is famously secretive about their viewership numbers, revealing very little about who watches their programs and how often.

Some companies have stepped into the breach, with Symphony Advanced Media, for example, doing research about Netflix viewership size. For example, the company says "Stranger Things" became one of Netflix's most popular shows this year after debuting during the summer, with the company stating that "Stranger" averaged more than 14 million viewers ages 18-49 in its initial 35 days. According to Symphony Advanced Media, that's ahead of, for example, the Netflix series "Jessica Jones," which brought in more than 6 million viewers ages 18-49 in the same time frame, and the fourth season of Netflix's "House of Cards," which drew more than 5 million viewers 18-49 in the same time frame.

The company also reported earlier this year that Amazon's acclaimed show "Transparent" has fewer viewers than shows like Netflix's "Master of None" and Hulu's "The Mindy Project," with "Transparent" getting a 0.68 rating for viewers aged 18-49 in its first 35 days. By contrast, "Master of None" brought in a 3.28 rating for viewers ages 18-49 within the same amount of time.

 Netflix, for one, usually doesn't confirm or deny these findings.

Amazon, which releases shows such as "Transparent," has embraced a similar secretiveness, saying in 2015 that "The Man in the High Castle" was their most-watched show, but without revealing specific numbers.

Christian says he sees the lack of public ratings as a good development because it allows for a clearer assessment of the quality of a show.

"I think Netflix benefits from the ambiguity of their popularity," he says, "from the perception that 'Everyone is watching this Netflix show,' and there's no verification of whether or not that's true."

He adds, "I like that Netflix is doing that, because it forces us to think about television outside of this hit-driven, '20 million people watch[ed] this episode!' to 'Is this show good?' and 'Do fans like it?' "

Thompson, for one, says he "had held off on [subscribing to] Netflix for many years until 'House of Cards' debuted and then I could no longer not get it. Therefore, regardless [of] what 'House of Cards''s ratings are, that was true of many, many other people than myself, and I think that could be constituted a hit by different standards."

When there are few (confirmed) numbers out there, awards for a show could take on a different importance. An Emmy Award may be the only feedback a TV viewer would hear about the show. For example, on Sunday, the HBO series "Veep," starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, has a relatively small audience share (0.4 or about 1.3 million viewers) but won the outstanding comedy series award for the second year in a row.

Christian agrees that awards can introduce Netflix or Amazon shows to viewers. "There's a very casual TV viewer that isn't aware of how many TV programs that there are and so will see that 'Transparent' gets an Emmy nomination and say, 'Oh, I've never heard of that show before. Let me watch it,' " he says.

For broadcast television, the audience size that defines hit may have shrunk, but the patience with flops hasn't changed. If anything, the life of a failure has shortened, due to the competitive environment. 

It's a system that's in contrast to many cable networks, which nearly always air at least one full season of a show – and thus perhaps give it more time to establish a fan base – or streaming services, which often release a whole season of a show on the same day.

"I think that broadcast model of ordering episodes based on ratings as the season progresses is very much beleaguered," Christian says.

Broadcasters face a commitment handicap in this golden age of television, he says: "Audiences now are hesitant to start watching a show that they think will be canceled, because why get invested in a story and characters if they're not even going to finish the story?"

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