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The show must go off

Why bother to commit to a new TV series when it is just going to be cancelled next season?

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Dean Norris as James

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Dean Norris as James "Big Jim" Rennie, a town leader on the series Under the Dome.

Last week, as TV networks announced their lineup for the upcoming season, I noticed more grumbling than usual about the short lifespan that befalls shows that aren't an instant ratings hit.

"The press release for NBC's Manson-killings drama Aquarius says the show 'will go on for several seasons,' " tweeted Time magazine TV critic James Poniewozik. "Cue God's laughter."

It's been a running joke of Jimmy Kimmel's when he takes the stage each year at ABC's annual presentation to advertisers. "Don't get attached to our new shows," he said this time. "It's like adopting a kitten with cancer."

Vulture editor Joe Adalian took to Twitter to assess the landscape: "If you take out spinoffs and shows based on franchises, just eight Big 4 shows launched since Sept. will be back for second seasons. #EndTimes."

Frustrated comments from viewers themselves have been a variation on this one posted to a story about CBS's planned offerings: "I'm not watching anything CBS has to offer above. They cancelled five shows that I liked and expect me to watch something else new, when they don't give anything more than a season anymore."

It's the snake eating its tail: Networks cancel shows people aren't watching, but people don't want to watch shows the network is going to cancel. Is this the same old griping or something new?

There are many reasons viewers don't latch onto new shows, including the most obvious: So many aren't any good. But as Netflix and Amazon and every other streaming service become even more embedded in our lives, are we increasingly asking ourselves: Why bother with a new show when it first airs? If it is worth checking out, I'll hear about it eventually.

"I think that's part of it," said Brad Agate, who heads up research at Horizon Media, "and that's something I've been thinking about."

'Don't get attached to our new shows. It's like adopting a kitten with cancer'

-- Jimmy Kimmel

He had a specific example in mind. "If you look at something like Under the Dome, I didn't think that show was going to have a second season. But they put it on Amazon last summer four days after it aired on CBS. And while Amazon didn't release the numbers, I remember (CBS CEO) Les Moonves saying that (Amazon CEO) Jeff Bezos was very happy with the results of how many people were streaming the show.

"And I think that was part of the reason for bringing it back a second year: That hopefully those younger viewers who watch streaming video may want to watch it on CBS for Season 2." (The show returns with new episodes June 30.)

That approach requires patience from TV networks, a temperament in short supply when executives, by virtue of the job, focus on quarterly earnings and immediate gains.

And yet some of TV's strongest legacies are shows that started soft.

Cheers, which premièred in 1982, is a frequently cited example. It was among the lowest-rated shows in its debut season. By 1990, it was No. 1. TV writer Ken Levine, whose credits include Cheers, was asked about this on his blog not long ago. "How or why was Cheers even renewed for the second season when its ratings were so bad?"

Levine's answer: "NBC was in a rebuilding period and that takes time." Also: "They had nothing else better to replace it with."

I asked Agate to weigh in. "Hill Street Blues was the same thing," he said. "The theory being, when your network is in last place, you can afford to be patient."

You have to wonder how far ABC's charmingly piquant family comedy Trophy Wife (featuring a breakout, endlessly watchable performance from nine-year-old actor Albert Tsai) could have gone with another season or two on the air to find an audience.

At the up-fronts last week, ABC head Paul Lee said he was sad to see the show go -- "as if he had nothing to do with seeing it go." Hitfix's Daniel Fienberg noted on Twitter.

Trophy Wife actually should have been renewed based on the patience theory alone, because ABC is in fact at the bottom on the heap for the season. It is in fourth place among adults 18-49, beating out only the CW.

Just days after the networks unveiled their new seasons, Nielsen announced it would begin compiling detailed information about the age and gender of people tweeting about television.

Nielsen has been tracking Twitter TV ratings since September, compiling the number of tweets about TV, plus the number of people those tweets reach. The ratings measure "earned" Twitter activity, so tweets from those affiliated with a show (actors, writers and the like) do not count.

What is new is the addition of demographic data (which will be made available only to Nielsen subscribers).

But on its website, the company does post its weekly Top 10 list of shows as ranked by the Twitter TV ratings. For the week ending May 18, the top three were the Billboard Music Awards, NBC's The Voice and HBO's Game of Thrones.

Scan further down the list and you'll see titles that may surprise you, MTV's Catfish: The TV Show and VH1's Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta included.

Sometimes the number of actual tweets is surprisingly small, but they have a big impact. Anderson Cooper 360 generated only 32 tweets, but they were seen by nearly 2,000 people.

What has yet to be determined is what these numbers mean in a larger sense. Right now they are an "important complement" to traditional data such as viewer numbers, according to Deirdre Bannon, a vice-president with Nielsen who is one of the people heading up its Twitter TV Ratings.

"Networks, agencies, advertisers are all investing heavily in social and they're very keen to understand how to use that information and tap into the fact that people are engaging on social while watching television," she said.

The primary value of these numbers right now: "Twitter engagement is (playing a role) in media buying." So: advertisers are taking Twitter into account, especially now that Nielsen is able to break down social activity by demographic. (Age and gender are determined by a person's name, the text of his or her tweets, who they follow, etc.)

But then you have a skeptic such as NBC's head of research Alan Wurtzel who, when asked if Twitter is influencing viewership, told the Financial Times: "I'm saying the emperor wears no clothes." He based his assessment on numbers compiled during this year's Winter Olympics, which is anything but typical snapshot.

Scott Smith, VP of content marketing at the Chicago-based ad agency Cramer-Krasselt, took a closer look at the data, specifically information released by Twitter earlier this month.

For the month of January, among those who saw TV-related tweets, 77 per cent took some kind of action to watch the show -- either watching it at some point later (42 per cent), online (38 per cent) or they picked up the remote, then and there, and changed the channel (33 per cent).

"That 33 per cent is a big deal," Smith wrote on his blog Our Man in Chicago. "Those are people who stopped watching their current show and took an immediate action (the ones networks desire the most) because they saw tweets about it. It's really hard to change user behaviour, especially while they're in the middle of that behaviour and data that say tweets can do that refutes just about everything NBC's Alan Wurtzel said about social media not driving ratings."

When I caught up with Smith by phone he cautioned: "I don't believe this study is the be-all, end-all. It doesn't answer the question definitively."

Also: 33 per cent of the 2,000 or 3,000 people (a common range on Nielsen's Top 10 list) is not a lot. It's in the neighbourhood of 700 to 1,000 people. That's not going to impact viewership numbers in a meaningful way. But the smart money says Twitter's influence will only growing with each TV season.

Or as Smith put it: "If there's a naked emperor in this scenario, it's definitely Wurtzel, not Twitter."

-- Chicago Tribune

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 25, 2014 A14

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