A hit TV show, never easy to make, at least used to be easy to identify. Through the end of the 20th century, a hit was a show watched by tens of millions of people, if not many more. You know what happened next. The explosion of content, offered by cable networks, premium cable networks, streaming service providers, video games, and the greatest attention grabber in human history—the Internet—fragmented that audience into millions of pieces. In 1995, NBC canceled The Single Guy, airing in the plum spot between Friends and Seinfeld, after two seasons: It had an audience of 20 million. This year, NBC’s Blindspot has been one of the broadcast networks’ few new hits, with about 8 million viewers.
Ratings mavens will point out that the 8 million calculation isn’t exactly fair: It doesn’t include the number of people who watched Blindspot within three days of the show airing (L+3, short for “live plus three days”), or within a week (L+7), or within three weeks, or anyone who watched on a phone or tablet. (The final two metrics are not currently measured by Nielsen, the company that compiles ratings for the TV industry.) According to NBC, if you combine all those numbers, Blindspot’s ratings are basically double what they appear to be.
But now I’m worried: Did you make it through the above paragraph? As ratings have gone down, they have gotten increasingly esoteric, using such complicated measurements that they may as well be spells cast to conjure missing eyeballs. The major networks are by no means the only magicians around. Wade through ratings information, and for every straightforward smash like Empire, The Walking Dead, or The Big Bang Theory, you will find five times as much data about L+3, L+7, and Twitter engagement. You will read boasts that a show is a network’s best ever performing drama, though it is the only drama it has ever aired; that it is the second best performing season in the series’ history; that it is the best performing episode ever among people age 19 to 24 who make more than $50,000, live in a city, really like hummus, and have tattoos they will eventually come to regret.
And even with all this slicing, dicing, and checking between the couch cushions for missing data points, networks care about much more than the number of people who tuned in. They are looking at buzz and prestige and loyalty. They are considering the passion, devotion, affluence, and youth of a show’s audience, and how much it uses social media. The networks are noting how cheap the show is to make, whether they own it, and if they want to be in business with its creator. They are wondering if the show they are contemplating airing instead will really do better. Considerations like these are why shows like Girls, Hell on Wheels, and Mysteries of Laura have gotten to multiple seasons despite small audiences.
And then there is Netflix, who keeps it simple by refusing to share any ratings data at all. Netflix (and to a lesser extent Amazon) is the real alchemist, the magician who, by withholding ratings information altogether, has turned its every show into a possible smash. (This particular trick can be called Schrodinger’s Netflix Account.) Netflix has become the predominant prestige brand in the country, behind only HBO, on the strength of a slate of bingeable series of varying quality watched by who knows how many people, or how few.
Perhaps Netflix’s strategy strikes you not just as cagey, but welcome. If Enlightened, Terriers, and Lone Star had premiered on Netflix, and not HBO, FX, and Fox respectively, they would all still exist. Good riddance to ratings, which have never been a reliable gauge of quality, and have lately become opaque and meaningless, thanks to all the desperate finessing outlined above. If almost nothing is a hit anymore, why shouldn’t a hit be whatever we say it is?
But that “we” is exactly the problem. This may sound grandiose given the besieged, piddling, and vanishing nature of Nielsen numbers, but ratings matter because ratings are a rejoinder to egotism, a tether to reality. Ratings keep us—barely— from mistaking our interests and our taste for everyone else’s, at a time when it has never been easier to conflate the two.
It is a commonplace to lament the way that technology has fragmented the collective cultural experience. Once, we had no choice but to watch the same shows in the same way. Now, we can choose to watch thousands of different shows in a variety of ways. But while this lamentation is grounded in objective reality, it has no standing in our subjective ones. Taste is more specific than ever, and yet it has never been easier to find hundreds of thousands of people to discuss any specificity via social media and the Internet. The mass experience has all but vanished, only to make room for niche experiences that feel mass.
Consider, for example, contemporary TV culture, in which the shows that are most dissected, discussed, recapped, obsessed and fought over are only occasionally highly rated. The Sopranos was a hit for HBO, but The Wire was not. Game of Thrones commands a large audience, but Mad Men never did. Scandal and Empire are smashes, but Smash was a hate-watch fetish object of the very few. The Office was a hit, but 30 Rock, Community, and Parks and Rec all struggled in the ratings. Friday Night Lights scuttled from home to home. If passion and buzz correlated with ratings, Girls would be the most popular show of all time.
In the absence of ratings, we are left to imagine that we, whomever we happen to be, are the only people watching. In the last few decades, as advertisers have fixated on the demo—that is, the portion of the audience that is 18 to 49 years old—networks have ceased to care about viewers older than 49. Those eyeballs don’t count. And so CBS is denigrated as a channel for old people, and in 2011, beleaguered NBC canceled Harry’s Law, with around 10 million viewers, because most of those viewers were out of the demo, and, therefore might as well not exist. If you’re wondering why there is no modern day Golden Girls, or why all the modern day Golden Girls feature much younger women, that’s the reason why: because we don’t include old people in the ratings calculus. Would Scandal have been taken seriously, would it have inspired so many other diverse shows, if we didn’t know it was a hit? Or would it have just been marginalized as a zany soap opera for women and especially women of color? Thank goodness we don’t have to find out.
It has never been easier to live in a bubble, or, to use the term of art, a silo, of a couple of million people who are into whatever you are into. It’s fun, it’s opinionated, and there are lots of hilarious GIFs in that bubble. But it’s important to remember—even just fleetingly—that this bubble is in fact a bubble. That, despite whatever your Facebook page tells you, many Americans are voting for Donald Trump and that the most popular show in the country is NCIS. Ratings may be an increasingly meaningless metric, a blunt instrument with hit or miss taste—but sometimes they still tell the truth.