An Arresting Development

Franklin and Gob

Franklin and Gob

Alongside the joy of series television’s ongoing weekly offerings of new pleasures, we must also know the sorrow that all good things must end. Thus with the announcement that Fox will not be ordering any more episodes of Arrested Development, the closest to an announcement of cancellation you can get without an explicit death certificate, many of us fans of the Bluths are left mired in denial, anger, bargaining, and depression on the road to acceptance. But can placing blame for ending the short but wonderful life of this sitcom help us grief-ridden viewers cope with Fox’s terminal decree? And is there a glimmer of hope within the story of AD’s demise?

The first hopeful lesson to be learned from AD‘s two-and-a-half season run is how it was even allowed to last as long as it did. Fox has a reputation for having little patience with risky programs that may please critics but don’t generate instant ratings — Profit, Action, The Tick, Firefly, Greg the Bunny, and Wonderfalls all stud Fox’s graveyard of critically-lauded but low-rated shows that didn’t last a full season. Arguably Fox is more willing to bring risky programs to the air than other networks, but they typically expect quick returns on innovations, with Malcolm in the Middle, The Bernie Mac Show, and 24 all providing sufficiently-strong initial ratings to allow them to continue for years to come. Fox has virtually no track record of the “slow growth” strategy, nurturing initially ratings-challenged programs like Seinfeld and Everybody Loves Raymond into ratings powerhouses, or patiently allowing critics darlings like Scrubs or Homicide to linger despite lackluster ratings.

So how did AD make it past its low-rated first season — and beyond its almost equally low-rated second season? Certainly Fox recognized that they had a potential slow growth hit, as executives lauded AD as a ground-breaking high-quality show that needed time to build an audience, often comparing it explicitly to Seinfeld in tone and sophistication. Another rationale was more economically motivated — AD is co-produced by Fox Television. Thus News Corporation’s conglomerated umbrella stands to benefit when Fox-produced programs air on the Fox network, even if ratings are low, as they can share in syndication, foreign distribution, and home video deals. Furthermore, the show’s other production company (Imagine Entertainment) has an exclusive deal with Fox Television and produces another Fox hit, 24. Fox network clearly would want to avoid ruffling the feathers of Imagine, especially given that the company’s co-founder Ron Howard serves as AD‘s narrator as well as Executive Producer.

But even though there may some economic, creative, and deal-making incentives to let AD linger in Fox’s schedule as long as possible, commercial television is still dominated by a singular focus on selling audiences to advertisers via the currency of ratings. AD never got ratings sufficient to generate revenues equal to Fox’s investment in the program. Since it’s more costly than a typical sitcom — with a large ensemble cast including well-established actors, single-camera shooting style, and labor-intensive use of multiple sets and extensive editing — it’s difficult for Fox network to justify running the show at a loss. While it’s common to blame networks for shifting programs around in schedules or lacking promotion, it seems that Fox did all it could to buoy AD’s ratings — scheduling the show after long-time hit The Simpsons last year, running episodes after top-rated American Idol, and trying to find a tonal match with Kitchen Confidential this season. Even pulling the show during sweeps months might have been in the program’s best interest — sweeps are when all local affiliates get their ratings measured, and a poor showing by a continuing series might generate outcry among stations. Although it’s fun to lambast a network for mistreating a beloved show, Fox isn’t really to blame for the show’s low ratings, as I believe they did all that they could.

So is it just a case of the majority of viewers lacking taste or intelligence to appreciate this program, as many disgruntled fans and critics suggest? I think AD‘s lack of ratings stems less from viewer practices, but more from issues involved in the ratings system itself. Ratings are seen by many in the industry as the site of viewer democracy, as people vote with their eyeballs what shows they want to watch and what they avoid. But Nielsen ratings are less like voting than like exit polling (and if exit polls were the measure of democracy, hello President Kerry!) — people cannot choose to participate in Nielsen ratings, and Nielsen only measures a miniscule fragment of the television viewing population. Unless you’re in one of the 5,000 households who comprise the bulk of Nielsen’s sample, your viewing habits (along with 99.995% of all other viewers!) simply do not register within the media economy — hardly a participatory democracy.

George Michael

George Michael

Nielsen claims that although small, their sample is sufficiently representative of American viewers to accurately mirror the country’s 110 million television households. But such sampling always contains a significant margin of error — at lower ratings numbers, this margin could easily skew AD’s rank sufficiently to move it past timeslot competitors like 7th Heaven, even though published ratings never acknowledge such statistical variances. Because Nielsen’s sample is quite stable (each Nielsen family serves a two-year term), a sample skewed against or for a particular program would persist week after week with no corrections built into the system. One additional sampling bias acknowledged by Nielsen is that it restricts its measure to household viewing, not semi-public spaces like bars or college lounges, nor new technologies like computer-based viewing.

I believe this limitation is crucial to AD‘s failure in measured ratings. Let me offer a bit of anecdotal qualitative research, with a larger margin of error than Nielsen but still instructive: in the 2004-05 season, I showed an episode of AD to two of my courses to exemplify contemporary media strategies & television’s narrative form. In each course, only one or two students had seen the show before. By the end of the semester, a good half of the students were proselytizing devotees, watching the season one DVDs, downloading episodes, and gathering in lounges each week, while trying to spread the cult of AD to ensure its long-term existence. None of these practices were measured by Nielsen, even if the students were randomly part of the company’s sample. Moreover, the basic questions asked by Nielsen — who is watching what? — doesn’t begin to address the degree to which a viewer cares about a program, is invested in its survival, and feels immersed in a viewing community. While Nielsen might give a fair estimate of how many viewers are watching a show, it’s hard to imagine that According to Jim (which garners at least twice as many ratings points than AD) would inspire devotion and lobbying campaigns, such as sending Fox thousands of bananas in support of the Bluths’ renewal, symbolic of the family’s boardwalk frozen banana stand. If I were an advertiser, I would want to associate my product with a program that provokes passions, not one that offers mild diversions.

So what can we learn from the saga of AD? Critics and fans hope to see a rebirth, with an alternate channel (Showtime being the most cited) picking up the program or a return to Fox as with Family Guy. Others see the opportunity for the program to innovate a new distribution model, using internet downloads, quick DVD turnaround, and viral marketing to bypass network and cable distribution strategies that seem ill-suited for the digital world. Perhaps these may come to fruition, signaling the ability of a quality show with a passionate fan base to move mountains. But for me, the mountain that needs moving is far bigger than Fox — the basic structure of the commercial television industry using ratings as central currency is in crisis in the wake of new technologies and an active participatory youth audience that refuses to watch television solely on networks’ own terms.

A sizable, motivated, and demographically desirable audience for AD awaits the advertisers and distributors who are willing to buck the centrality of ratings as determinant of television’s hits and misses. Can the industry change the terrain of broadcasting by asking not “who’s watching what?” but “how are people watching?” If so, programs like AD are the future of television, with untapped potential sources of revenue available by engaging audiences on their own terms, offering flexible options for fans to buy into their favorite programs. By only investing in the traditional currency of ratings, networks ignore the multitude of ways that viewers are already actively engaging with their programs, and forego the option for people to actually participate in the selection of television programming that they want to see. It may be too soon in television’s technological and industrial shift to see Arrested Development take advantage of the possibilities for new sources of revenue within our favorite programs, but it helps point out where to look — in the immortal words of George O. Bluth, there’s always money in the banana stand.

Image Credits:

1. Franklin and Gob

2. George Michael

Please feel free to comment.

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10 comments

  • natasha patterson

    Jason Mittel’s piece has done a great job of demonstrating why witty and clever shows like AD tend to get neglected in the ‘official ratings’. I have watched over the years, many critically engaging shows like My So-Called Life, Futurama, Undeclared and Freaks and Geeks, be given premature cancellations. I always felt that it was the networks fault – that they didn’t support their shows enough, but Mittel’s discussion of the Neilson ratings has opened my eyes to the problems of this system and its outdated take on tv viewing. I might ask further questions such as, how are the Neilson ratings distributed – that is, who gets to be a Neilson family? Also, I suppose little attention has been paid to systems like TiVO? It would be interesting to see how viewing patterns might change if these newer TV technologies were taken into consideration. Furthermore, as a Canadian viewer, it is frustrating at times to know that we have little influence over the staying power of these shows, and I often find that the best programs that American network TV has to offer are usually the first ones to be cancelled.

  • Why ACNielsens Aren’t Invited to My Birthday Party

    On many a Sunday, after working the entire weekend instead of “getting a life,” a lone source of satisfaction and escape for me is Arrested Development. And so it is with substantial anger and sadness, that I met the news of its likely passing.

    But what’s particularly damning is that if MY programs are being cut, what’s this say about other people’s programs? After all, I, like Jason, am a young-ish, white, college graduate, middle-class male. In other words, we’re who advertisers claim to love, and we’re who most of them want to impress. (And let me add, in case some lone executive is out there reading this, both Jason and I have power over the minds of even more young, educated viewers … as the anecdote in his article proves). So if Jason and I are being shunned, and if the system is failing us — as the very types of people that an advertiser system works *best* for — this speaks volumes of how awfully the system works for the viewing desires of others less advertiser friendly: older people, ethnic minorities, children, lower classes, etc.

    I find it amazing and sad, too, that while the networks, cable channels, and cable and satellite companies constantly try to convince us that what they offer is democracy in action (the logic being that the choice of what to watch is the choice over human destiny), there is so little consumer outrage about the crudeness of this supposed democracy’s voting system.

  • The problem with AD — and with the Nielsens

    I actually think that part of the problem Arrested Development has had with gaining a wide audience is that it IS an extremely challenging show to watch and enjoy. Its jokes can be so subtle, its references so obscure, and its cleverness so rapid-fire that it takes quite a bit of concentration to “get it” in any real sense. This is not to say that the majority of Americans could not get it if they chose to attend to it, it is to say that getting it requires serious attention. In my home, it is a show that we won’t watch if it is getting too late in the evening. We’re simply too tired to concentrate as much as is necessary to keep up with it! It is no wonder to me that others may have had a similar response and gave up on the show as a result.

    That said, Jason’s points about the inaccuracies of the Nielsens are of course wholly correct. However, it is difficult to imagine the kind of reworking of the rating system that he envisions. The Nielsens are so essential to the functioning of the TV and advertising industries (and thus to the industries of the countless goods and service providers who hawk their products via TV ads) that it is in nearly everyone’s interests within the industry to suspend their disbelief about the Nielsens’ trustworthiness. If those in the industry were to recognize the fundamental faultiness of the ratings system, the commmercial basis–and essential function–of the industry would necessarily break down. And neither advertisers nor networks want that to happen. That said, we do seem to be in a time of questioning about the future of the TV industry, its distribution practices, and its revenue streams. So change may come, but I doubt it will be all that radical, or that it will come all that soon.

  • Audiences, technologies, and tipping points

    Jason and all the commenters have addressed important points about what AD’s ratings failure represents about the state of the TV industry.

    I think Elana’s point about the show’s relative “difficulty” is particularly interesting, as it points towards all sorts of issues and decisions in the series’ production and promotion, and in all series like it. I agree with Jason that there were compelling reasons for Fox to support this show for as long as they have (not least of which being the fact that they genuinely liked it). That said, they must have realized how much of an uphill battle it would be (even in the current TV environment), and how their track record in nurturing struggling series was pretty miserable (for example, the axe nearly fell for good on The X-Files about four episodes into its first season).

    The larger issue, though, is the changing relationship between viewers and distribution channels. While DVRs and downloaded episodes are only marginal thus far, they’re clearly changing industry attitudes about ratings and schedules. Local stations are understandably nervous, and advertisers are mulling alternatives. The oft-predicted revolt of advertisers at the upfronts won’t happen, as the networks increasingly see themselves as content producers, rather than distribution channels. As the flurry of online distribution deals this fall has indicated, they’re already chasing potential viewers, rather than placing all their chips on (say) 9 pm Mondays. The Big Question is when will the “tipping point” fully arrive. My hunch is that we’ll talk about Fall 2005 as the beginning of the end of traditional broadcasting economics.

    Although it’s not as sexy as it was a few years ago, I’d also add the not-insignificant DVD market, which, although it has apparently slowed a bit, is the standard MO for network series. And people are watching DVDs instead of shows in their initial airings. I know of one couple who doesn’t subscribe to cable at all, but instead waits to buy season boxes of each buzz-worthy show as it’s released. Add to that the “Family Guy effect” (i.e., a show returning to production because of its success on DVD), and it’s possible that AD and its ilk could come back in some form before too long.

  • Ratings system issues

    Having worked for nearly 17 years in audience estimates industry directly, there are many flaws with the current system that would entail additional investments by ratings companies to attempt to effectively measure the true viewing population to a program. But in the end, the industry is comfortable with the current system becaus eit generates predictable results that allow them to anticipate who will win and who will lose. A real problem with shows like AD that have a young and mobile audience is that in the past (90’s)ratings companies explicitly did not measure viewing within Group Quarters (College dorms, Prisons, Militray Bases). This would certainly count out the core viewership to this innovative program.

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  • Problems with FOX

    Although I do agree that FOX is not completely to blame for the cancellation of a great show such as Arrested Development, I must say that they are not entirely innocent, either. Jason claims that a show can loose it’s audience because it’s moved around too much, but then says that FOX didn’t do this with AD. The only problem with his argument is that he goes and prevents examples of three times the show was moved, which made it hard to find for the audience, and then he goes and talks about how the show was pulled for sweeps week. It may have been a good idea to pull the show for this week, but not for the amount of time that the show was off the air. Then, as if to say “we are truly done with this show” FOX airs the final four episodes back to back, in one two hour block, against the opening games of the 2006 winter olympics. To me, this doesn’t sound like FOX did everything it could for the show. It sounds like Jason stood up for a company that really did play a major part in canceling the show, whether it was the final nail in the coffin or not.

  • It’s FOX’s Fault Too

    I believe while there is some fault in the Nielson ratings system, the main reason why Arrested Development was cancelled was because of how FOX dealt with the television program. The shows shedule was frequently changed and it was poorely advertised by FOX Television. It is the fault of the large TV conglomerates and corporations why quality shows like Arrested Development are taken off the air. They look at shows that will bring them the most profit and if they are loosing money from a show, it will get cut. Instead of letting smart and new shows like Arrested Development, Firefly, and Greg the Bunny generate a more ratings, FOX would rather play it safe with another reality show or more Malcom in the Middle. Jason is right about ratings playing a role in Arrested Development’s failure but it was because of FOXs’s poor advertising and schedule changing that gave the show its poor ratings.

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