The Ratings For Cable And The Streaming ‘Viewers’
Streaming Is Where Are All The People Are…Or Are They?
Yesterday USA announced that the fourth season of the Bill Pullman slow-burn mystery drama The Sinner will be its last one. There will be time to consider whether it deserved to keep going another season, but this isn’t that article.
What is far more important is what the cancellation of The Sinner represents — as of right now USA only has one remaining original program on its docket: Chucky, the Child’s Play reimagining. Right now, the series is a huge success and has already been greenlit for a second season. That said there is a very real possibility that USA — the network that brought such brilliant series as Burn Notice, Psych and the multiple Emmy winner Mr. Robot will very soon be out of the original series business.
As I mentioned in an earlier article, over the past few years more and more of the basic cable networks are getting out of the original series market. Lifetime and A&E abandoned it before and its looking like TNT and Comedy Central may not be far behind. In a sense you can’t entirely blame them — cable networks are all about the bottom line and with fewer and fewer people watching series on TV in general, there’s less money in putting original series on the air. An FX executive once argued that there were too many original series out there. It seems that quite a few networks have realized this, and are getting out of the business — and leaning more towards streaming services. They are, after all, where all the viewers are…or are they?
I fully understand why so many people are gravitating towards services like Netflix and Amazon for their television needs — no one has time to sit down and watch a series when it airs and these services allow watching them whenever and wherever you want. Where the reasoning has always fallen down has been a simple problem: how many people are watching these original shows on streaming services? This has been a question that every single service has been maddeningly refusing to answer ever since they got in the business. For the past decade, Netflix has been high to announce that certain series are the most watched shows on their service, but they’ve never told us how many viewers there were or how they reached those numbers? The media and the fans have been asked to take it on faith that Orange is the New Black, or Stranger Things, or Squid Game is being watched by tens of millions of viewers. And you can trust Netflix — why would the company that brought you Ozark and Peaky Blinders lie to you about this?
I’ve never fully trusted this method. I’ve always doubts about how the Nielsen ratings worked — I thought they were always a flawed example of viewership to begin with and they’ve done nothing to improve them over the years — but I’ve been inclined to trust the Nielsen’s announcements more than the broadcast networks. I can buy that eight million people are watching every episode of The Wonder Years with less incredulity than ABC’s announcing that 40 million viewers are. Similarly, I’m inclined to trust the numbers that come out of cable — if HBO was going to lie about the number of viewers that watched the Season 3 premiere of Succession, you’d think they’d be more inclined to say it was greater than 2 million. But the idea that somehow fifty million viewers watching every season of Orange is the New Black always struck me as unbelievable. We can’t get that many people to vote in a midterm for a single party, but somehow that many people were watching the Upside Down? I never bought it.
And I had good reason not too. Late last year, it was announced that the rubric for how Netflix determines how many people view a given program is based almost entirely on how many people watch the first ten seconds. Which means whether you chose to binge watch the first season of House of Cards or tuned out after the first moment saw Kevin Spacey, your viewership counted the same.
In my mind this is a far bigger scandal than anything Dave Chapelle said in any of his comedy specials and honestly should be regarded as such. It shouldn’t come as a shock either: we don’t trust multi-billion dollar corporations on their hiring practices or their carbon footprint. Why should we have believed their report of what their viewers are?
And fundamentally, this level of distrust should hold with every major streaming service. We don’t believe anything Jeff Bezos says about working conditions in his warehouses; why should we believe Amazon about the number of people who watch Goliath? Hulu’s original advertising campaign was that they were aliens bent on turning our brains to mush; somehow we were supposed to believe they were telling us the truth about how people watched Shrill? Sure Disney tells us that twenty million people are watching every new episode of The Mandalorian, but how much do we want to trust the company that owns the rights to Star Wars? If that’s not a conflict of interest, I don’t know what is. If the only people telling us how good their product is are the manufacturers, then why should we trust them?
Now to be fair, I have very little problem with many of the shows from all of these services — I’ve spent the last several years advocating that some of the greatest shows of that time came from these services. And I also acknowledge that just because you’re a multi-billion dollar corporation doesn’t necessarily mean you can have a successful streaming service — anyone remember Yahoo TV? Of course you don’t — it was there and gone in less than a year.
The problem is the overall effect streaming has had over television as a whole. Streaming makes every convenient for everybody — except for its competition. I’ve spent too much time explaining how streaming and cable have hurt the ability of network television to compete, and now it’s clear it’s causing the same damage to cable. I’m kind of shocked that all the people who are demanding anti-trust legislation for just about every other monopoly in this country aren’t doing the same for the way streaming companies are undermining television programming. Everyone wants to dismantle Amazon, but not for the fact it’s taking viewers from CBS. And yes I know almost every major broadcast or cable network is a monopoly of half a dozen other broadcasting networks. It might not be the worst idea to use the same legislation there either.
In fact, that brings me to my final point. One of USA’s main owners is NBC. I think there’s a good chance a lot of writers have been going to NBC’s cable networks like USA and SyFy with original programming ideas over the years. In 2020 NBC started its own streaming service Peacock which already has quite a few series airing on it now, including Girls5eva and Rutherford Falls. You can pretty much see where this is going — those with great ideas will go to Peacock, and having learned the lesson from Netflix, they’ll go on to say that the reboot of Battlestar Galactica — headed by Sam Esmail, the creator of Mr. Robot – is watched by more viewers than any other show on its service. Will this be the truth? We will have no way of knowing. All it will mean is that a series that was originally one of the cables — and Peak TV’s — great success stories will end up on streaming. How long will the continuation of this process lead to the cliché that people said for decades about cable being true — 500 channels and still nothing on?