Some viewers are simply more valuable than others. No, I’m not talking about the precious 18-49 demo. CBS has been doing just fine going after all the eyeballs they can, even those with cataracts. I’m talking about the fact that how you choose to watch a TV show significantly affects your power as a viewer. Here’s my list, from the most powerful way to watch to the least:
1. Buy/rent episodes online. I could make a case for this going either #1 or #2. The case for #1 is that when you watch a show on live TV your eyes might be worth a few cents, but when you buy (or rent) the show on iTunes or Amazon, your eyes are now worth a buck or two. That’s a huge difference. The case for #2 is that people who buy episodes online just aren’t plentiful enough to actually affect network decisions. Sure, The Office got attention for massive iTunes sales despite so-so ratings when it first premiered, but I think NBC’s decision to renew it had more to do with the fact that the 40 Year-Old Virgin was about to come out. When the producers of Smallville’s Aquaman spin-off put their unaired pilot on iTunes, it was a huge seller by online standards, but it barely earned back even a fraction of its budget, and it didn’t give the CW a reason to pick-up the show. I decided to give it the #1 slot, though, because as a single viewer, no other way gives your viewership as much power and flexibility. If more people got their TV this way, it would drastically reshape the entire TV landscape.
2. Watch it live (or nearly live). Should go without saying that the overnight ratings are still the most important measure around. If you want your viewership to matter the most, but don’t want to pay for the experience, watch it the night it airs. And if you’re worried that no one knows you’re watching because you’re not a Nielsen household (i.e. a household who’s viewing habits are tracked for ratings)… don’t fret. Trust me, there’s a Nielsen viewer out there with the same exact tastes as you. If you tune in, so will they.
3. Watch it on DVR within a few days. Nielsen now reports viewership that includes time-shifting. I’ve seen numbers in the trades that include viewership up to a week later, but the sooner you watch it (say, within 3 days), the more someone is going to care.
4. Buy the DVD. This might not help keep a show on the air, especially if you wait until after the show is cancelled before buying the complete set, but DVD sales are still a mega-lucrative revenue stream (though not as lucrative as a few years ago). Family Guy and Futurama are just two shows brought back from cancellation because of really strong DVD sales. Many others have been kept on the air or given additional episode orders just so they could later be sold on DVD (I’m convinced Dollhouse falls into that boat).
5. Watch it on the network website (ABC.com, NBC.com, etc). The networks might own a share of Hulu, but Hulu is still its own enterprise, with its own employees and overhead. So when you watch a show on Hulu, not all the advertising revenue goes directly back to the networks. When I worked at NBC.com, my job was to create content for their website (webisodes, behind-the-scenes videos, stuff like that). Because of their deal with Hulu, though, anything I created for NBC.com also got shared on Hulu.com, too. That was great in terms of getting my work seen by more people, but it sucked in that my department’s budget came only from the advertising sold on NBC.com. So people watching our stuff on Hulu weren’t exactly helping us (sadly). Though no one seems to want to admit it publicly, in many ways Hulu is still a competitor to network websites. You want to count just a smidgen more, go directly to the network sites.
6. Watch it via Hulu Plus. The “plus” apparently stands for “some advertising PLUS a subscription fee” and that might be annoying for viewers, but there’s more money in it for networks and studios, and when they get more money, you get more value as a viewer.
7. Watch it via regular Hulu. Don’t get me wrong, I still really like Hulu, but you see how far down the list it is. It’s not the savior of the television biz that many people think it is. Not yet anyway. They’ve still got a lot of work to do.
8. Netflix it. Stream it, get the disc, it’s all the same. Money is still getting back to the studio. Not as much as the studios would like, which is why Netlfix has mostly older material, and no show will ever be saved from cancellation by it’s Netflix audience, but it’s better than nothing.
9. Watch it overseas. The reason Alias stayed on the air as long as it did is because of it’s popularity abroad. Same for Prison Break. Foreign viewers don’t count as much as domestic ones, but they still count.
And the least powerful way to watch TV is via…
Piracy. Just saying the words “online piracy” creates a firestorm of opinion, with someone always ready to take the other side. If I say that viewers who watch pirated content have zero value, I’m sure someone else will say: “But it’s because they don’t reward sub-standard material with additional ratings that pirates actually have the most elusive power of all!” Whatever. I don’t want to get into a debate over the ethics of the issue, or it’s long-term affect on all of Hollywood. I’m just pointing out that by choosing to watch a pirated copy of a TV show over a legal one, you’re completely disempowering yourself as a viewer. You’re essentially saying to the world: “I don’t exist. I don’t matter.” Heroes was always among the most pirated shows around, if not the top pirated show during its run. That fact never once played into any decisions whether or not to renew or cancel it. No network exec ever said: “Hey, look how well it’s illegally downloading! Let’s keep it on the air so we can at least sell some more t-shirts!” Likewise, no exec ever said: “Man, let’s screw all these ungrateful pirates and cancel the show, then replace it with something they won’t like as much!” There’s no shortage of legal ways to watch TV shows for free, so do yourself a favor and use them. Watching a TV show downloaded illegally has the same value as watching a washing machine for an hour.
So that’s my rankings. Have a different opinion? Am I forgetting anything?