Column: Is the Nielsen system truly dying?

Illegal download figures give huge boosts to Heroes, Lost.

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A recent BBC report on the prevalence of filesharing highlighted the fact that far more people are using BitTorrent, Limewire and other similar services to download television shows and films far more than music, giving official confirmation to a fact that was more or less taken as a given up until now.

It’s not the fact that filesharing accounts for a huge amount of internet traffic that was the main item of interest in the article however, but the examples that it cites to support its argument. The reporter, Rory Cellan-Jones states that Heroes “was the most popular illegal download this year, according to research firm Big Champagne,” stating that 55 million people downloaded the show this year alone. The article also cites Lost as being the second most popular property among fileshares, taking 51 million downloads this year. Cellan-Jones doesn’t make it clear in his report whether 55 million distinct individuals downloaded Heroes episodes or whether it was simply downloaded 55 million times, but either way, the figures are staggering.

Heroes has suffered ups and downs in its ratings this year and lost audiences more than nearly any other show (unless you count the drop off from The Sarah Connor Chronicles’ premiere episode, which garnered around 18 million viewers and fell sharply from there), and the threat of cancellation has loomed over its head all year. However, the Nielsen ratings, which are the industry standard measurement of audience participation in a show, have become increasingly unreliable over the years, particularly with the advent of digital television recording and filesharing across the internet, and studios are starting to wake up to this.

In a recent interview with the press on the set of Dollhouse, another ratings-beleaguered show that received a surprise renewal several months ago, creator Joss Whedon more or less inferred that networks are now taking notice of downloads and other media to add to audience figures, and not just those who have Nielsen boxes in their households. “All of the revue [sic] streams are taken into account,” said Whedon. “It used to be who tuned in that night. Now with DVR, our DVR numbers were about the highest, while our on-Friday-night numbers were hilarious. So they’re taking all this into account.” Daniel Fienberg, the reporter for HitFix.com who relayed the press event, also commented on the fact that networks aren’t just relying on ratings for their renewal opinions. “The series returned in part because audiences were passionate and enthusiastic without resorting to elaborate campaigns. They weren’t necessarily appearing in Nielsen figures, but fans were out there in different venues and FOX noticed.”

Other examples are beginning to appear with frequent regularity. Most recently, Chuck was renewed for a limited third season after a lot of deliberation at NBC due to its weak, but steady numbers. An organised fan campaign that targeted the show’s sponsors, Subway, helped greatly in the decision, but the network executives have also acknowledged that the persistent presence of so much online support helped show that there is an audience for the series, and that with work, that power can be harnessed. Jericho, a post-apocalyptic show from several years ago, was also brought back despite lacklustre ratings due to an organised fan effort to change minds at the network.

What this shows, essentially, is a paradigm shift in studio thinking, moving away from simply numbers from the television sets through to an embrace of the digital age. While downloading television shows cannot be condoned, it’s clear that the activity is turning heads as an indicator of popularity, and the explosion in popularity of sites such as Hulu, where you can legally watch episodes of shows if you live in the United States, has demonstrated effectively that the audience is out there, that they are watching the shows and that modern media organisations need to come up with new and inventive ways of harnessing that viewership and converting it into the essential lifeblood of network television, advertisement exposure. Don’t expect to see an immediate move away from the reliance on Nielsen, but do expect a creeping change in the mindset, particularly as younger and more tech-savvy executives move up in the ranks. This year’s surprise renewals have already demonstrated that this is happening, and given the traditionally low numbers of viewers and high production costs for science fiction television, it can only be a good thing for the genre.

It’s just a shame that it came too late to save Firefly. Now who saw that coming?

Picture credit: hotblack