If social media can help drive a revolution, surely it can sway the fate of a small, overlooked television series on the brink of cancellation. Right?
A few weeks ago I wrote about one of the strongest shows on TV right now, the nuanced and mordantly funny cop drama "Southland" (9 p.m. Wednesdays). It wraps its fifth season this month on TNT. Have you been watching this intensely confident show? The Nielsen ratings suggest the answer is a resounding no.
Hedging their bets, three of the show's featured players — Regina King, Ben McKenzie and Shawn Hatosy — have secured roles in pilots shooting this spring. None of this bodes well for the show's future.
This may be the last we see of "Southland."
Which is why my inbox continually fills with emails from readers who want to know what they can do to push for the show's renewal. "I am aware this may be a futile endeavor," one wrote, "but I believe that 'Southland' is worth it."
I couldn't agree more. And I'm not alone; the show won a Peabody Award last week. If you look at my Twitter feed (@NinaMetzNews), a lot of people feel the same way — and, along with writers on pop culture sites including Vulture and Salon, they are making noise for other high-quality shows in peril as well: "Bunheads," "Happy Endings," "Enlightened."
This isn't new. Every year good shows with low ratings get the hook. But lately things have felt different. Or maybe that's what happens when you spend too many hours online, where it is easy to be fooled into thinking that, for the first time, we as niche viewers are making our collective voice heard.
Surely all that Twitter-fueled energy and impassioned episode-by-episode reviewing is having an impact.
"TNT may not be AMC or even FX," someone posted in the comments of the A.V. Club's "Southland" post last week, "but even their suits must give a rat's (expletive) about having something on their network they can be proud of. Maybe this Peabody will finally make them and their marketing/publicity people wake up and promote the hell out of this show so it can finally achieve the recognition and awards it deserves."
This romantic digital groundswell has to count for something. Right?
For one, HBO has already announced that "Enlightened" is kaput. No amount of compelling think-pieces or in-depth interviews with creator Mike White or celebrity support (from comedian Patton Oswalt, among others) made a difference.
I asked University of Michigan TV scholar Amanda Lotz for some perspective. "If it's an established network like HBO with a brand that is already well-known?" she said. "Then I don't think the level of buzz going on around a small show is going to make a difference."
All that matters is money. Also: water is wet.
"These are commercial media industries that exist not to give people what they want or to make people happy," Lotz said, "but to turn a profit. And I'm sure the people at HBO are really sorry they can't afford to make content for such a small audience."
Should that matter when HBO has cultivated a reputation as an artisanal network — the one that's not going after the lowest common denominator and Nielsen ratings because it doesn't have to? (HBO's money comes from subscribers and back-end streams including DVD sales).
"It's not rocket science," TV By the Numbers co-founder Bill Gorman told me when I reached him in San Francisco. His site tracks ratings and prognosticates which shows will stick around and which are headed for cancellation. Here's his analysis: "Every HBO show gets two seasons unless you kill horses." (That would be the horse-racing-themed drama "Luck," pulled last year after three of its animals suffered injuries and were put down.)
"But after that, HBO has to make resource allocation decisions," Gorman said. "And their resources are: money, executive bandwidth, time slots open on the schedule and marketing resources." When it came to weighing a third season for "Enlightened," a quiet, almost unassuming comedy that had deep things to say about difficult people and corporate environments? A show that wasn't drawing more than 300,000 viewers? "They decided it wasn't worth it."
The matrix for ad-supported shows is different. When a show is brand new, it has to generate as much ad revenue as possible through high ratings. If a show can survive through two seasons, then it's halfway to having enough episodes for syndication — and syndication is the real payday.
"Look at CBS," Gorman said. "If CBS renews a show for two years, it's guaranteed to get four, which gets them 88 episodes so they can syndicate. So you've got a show like 'The Good Wife' (just renewed for a fifth season). Fans who want to feel good about themselves because they watch the show imagine that it gets renewed year after year because it's smart television or it's an award-winner. That's nonsense.
"A month ago a syndication deal was announced, finally — and that was pretty late in life for a CBS show. Obviously that deal made it worth CBS's while to produce more shows. And now it's all about the syndication money, because the show's ratings are terrible — and they were terrible last year, too."
It's tough to hear Gorman lay it out like this. We form emotional bonds with shows that we like, and who doesn't like Alicia Florrick and her freakishly amazing wardrobe? Oh, right. Everyone not watching "The Good Wife." Gorman (whose site is part of Tribune Media Services' Zap2it) isn't offering opinions about quality. That's beside the point, as far as he's concerned; he's a numbers guy — the TV industry equivalent of a baseball statistician. (Not surprisingly, fans of shows he deems goners push back hard in the comments section of his site.)
So forget what your Twitter feed or Internet wanderings say. It's time to step out of the echo chamber.
It's all about money in the end. No one ever said it wasn't. And Hollywood never lacked for cynicism. It's called show business, not show-show, and I can't believe I just resorted to that tired old cliche.
But the powerless thing? It feels lousy. I'd argue the success of the recent "Veronica Mars" Kickstarter campaign (which will resurrect the old CW TV series as a movie) reflects just how badly audiences want the fate of a beloved project placed in their own hands.
Lotz wrote a book in 2007 called "The Television Will Be Revolutionized" — note: not to be confused with Alan Sepinwall's recent book "The Revolution Was Televised" — in which she did some back-of-the-envelope math to determine "how much each viewer would have to pay to resurrect a low-rated show like 'Arrested Development,' based on its pre-Twitter fan base. And it turned out to be not much," she said. Less than $20 per person. "The problem with that as a long-term model is, how do you introduce new shows using that model? All of that certainly could get figured out, and it's ironic that 'Arrested Development' has since had this additional life because it found a new distribution outlet on Netflix." (New episodes of "Arrested Development" will become available on Netflix this spring.)
That's an unusual case, though. Most cancelled shows stay canceled.
Over at tvbythenumbers.com, Gorman has set up a grid he calls "Fan Excuse Bingo," charting all the typical laments such as "It ran opposite (insert name of ratings juggernaut)" and my go-to: "Everyone I know watches this." (But really, everyone I know watches this.)
There's also this one: "Nielsen is an antiquated system." How accurate are the ratings, anyway? "Accurate enough for the guys who write big giant checks," Gorman said. "It's all money. It's all money. These guys at the networks are not looking to please customers, they're looking to please advertisers. They're not making art. They're selling eyeball availability to sell cars and beer."
I'm not mistaking ABC's "Happy Endings" for art, but the show (which moved to Fridays last week) is a lovably antic screwball comedy that has more jokes per minute than anything else on TV now that "30 Rock" has closed up shop. My colleague Christopher Borrelli outlined the show's many pleasures on Sunday. Last week Jezebel ran a mash note with this headline: "Happy Endings Is the Best Sitcom on TV and No One Is Watching It."
Per Gorman, "Happy Endings" is toast. But then he backtracked. "We thought that once before about another show that continued on, and it's a good parallel because both are produced by Sony." He's referring to "'Til Death," which starred Brad Garrett and ran from 2006-2010 on Fox.
"My guess is you never saw that show," he said. "In its second season it had bad ratings. Bad. We thought, 'It's definitely getting cancelled.' Then, nope, renewed for a third season. It aired only seven episodes that season before it was pulled from Fox's schedule because of horrible ratings. And then it was renewed for a fourth season and ended up producing a total of 81 episodes. So, close enough for syndication. Certainly Sony gave it to Fox for free; Sony may have paid Fox, for all I know. And 'Happy Endings' is a Sony show. Miracles can happen. That's the only chance they have."
OK. But isn't the recently renewed "Cougar Town" a better comparison? Gorman: "That show is produced by Warner Bros. Cancelled from ABC for low ratings. Where did it end up? TBS, which is owned by Warner Bros."
So no, there really is no room on the schedule for the underdog.
"The final objective is this," Gorman said: "What is (Disney CEO) Bob Iger going to say when he gets up in front of the Disney shareholders and somebody says, 'What the hell were you doing keeping "Happy Endings" on the schedule for another season when you might have made more money with something else?'"
Gorman didn't even speculate about "Bunheads," the quirky, talky dramedy on ABC Family (from "Gilmore Girls" creator Amy Sherman Palladino) about teenage ballet dancers and their offbeat instructor.
"Over its first season, it's been a joy to watch, funny, charming and bittersweet," Time magazine TV critic James Poniewozik wrote in February, "and that's reason enough for me to want it to stay on the air, despite not-great-even-for-ABC-Family ratings. But TV also needs this show to stay on the air, to prove that there are different kinds of stories worth telling outside the usual genres." He's right. Gorman's more cold-eyed view renders all this good will moot.
But wait. Wait! What about plans for a Nielsen Twitter TV Rating announced in December? Maybe social media can exert influence on network decisions. "I guarantee that will produce massive confusion, because it will have nothing to do with TV ratings," Gorman told me. In fact, he thinks the Twitter data will be meaningless.
"Here's the way to think about it: Nielsen is going to measure whatever somebody will pay them to measure. Everybody's drinking the social media Kool-Aid, so, hey, let's measure that," he said. "Will that be added to ratings numbers? Of course not, because TV ratings measure who watches the ads. That's all they care about: Who watches the ads."
My two cents: Social media makes it very clear who likes what. There is value in that information. I have to think someone will come along with a metric that proves targeting a devoted audience (people who Tweet about "Happy Endings," for example) can be just as effective for advertisers as the old model. How TV networks would translate that into revenue is still unclear.
For now, there's more bad news. All those emails I've received from readers hoping for a viewer-led campaign to save "Southland"? The way a similar surge of support kept the ratings-challenged action-comedy "Chuck" on NBC for five seasons? Your hopes are built on pixie dust.
"That was completely marketing spin by the 'Chuck' people," according to Gorman. "What happened was Warner Bros. cut their license fee to NBC to get the show to stay on the air so it could get to syndication.
"We (at TV by the Numbers) famously blackened our eye in predicting the show's cancellation. We didn't know what we were doing well enough back then. We were idiots. We made the same mistake with 'Fringe' — same studio, by the way. But all those fans think they did it. Come on. Warner Bros. just said, 'Look, how low do we have to go to keep it on the air?'"
What does that mean for "Southland," which has no syndication honey pot in its future? The show is already on its second life at TNT, where it moved after just one season on NBC.
"Warner Bros. Television makes the show, and maybe there's some financial razzmatazz between the Warner Bros. cable network and its TV studio," Gorman theorized, offering a shred of hope. "And lower ratings are OK on some cable networks. It's all relative."
"It's hard to tell what is good enough for a cable network," he said. "The goalposts are always moving."