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

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