Patience Pays for TV Shows
There’s never been a better time to fall in love with a cult TV hit — that show that fans and critics constantly rave about but always seems to be in imminent danger of cancelation.
These days, low ratings don’t necessarily mean a show’s days are numbered. There are so many ways to keep a series alive and to build its audience that if it demonstrates creative potential amid ratings bumps, chances are good it will stick around.
Of course, certain conditions apply.
High-end, serialized shows are faring especially well in this environment — skeins such as AMC’s Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Killing or FX’s Justified and Sons of Anarchy. Never have TV networks and studios been as tolerant of low ratings for sophisticated serials, because what they may grow into is an unknown.
Moreover, if one network can’t tolerate a show’s ratings, another distributor might, as seen in the jumps of Friday Night Lights from NBC to DirecTV, Cougar Town from ABC to TBS and Southland from NBC to TNT, along with Netflix’s revival of Fox’s Arrested Development.
“Not so long ago, serialized shows were a difficult genre to program, and the underlying economic model didn’t really work,” says one distribution executive. “That paradigm has now shifted. … The networks have seen how well many serialized shows seem to be working, and Netflix has seen that binge viewing is a cornerstone of the experience that it offers consumers. Today, subscription video on demand (SVOD) complements whatever marketing a network is able to do for a show, and it makes up for the lack of a traditional syndication back-end, plus offers consumers the ability to catch up.
“It’s a virtuous cycle. It all works together to help the network boost ratings, and to make a show more popular and more ubiquitous.”
Serialized shows might launch with modest beginnings, but on-demand viewing and social media mean that the audience for these shows could explode at any moment. Some of today’s most buzzed-about, most critically acclaimed shows got there via steady growth.
Showtime’s Homeland climbed 35% in its second-season finale compared to season one. PBS’ Downton Abbey grew 65% compared with season two. And AMC’s The Walking Dead again set cable-ratings records with its third-season finale, outperforming all shows on television among adults 18-49 and pulling in as many as 15 million viewers overall.
All three of those TV powerhouses got that way, at least partly, because people couldn’t stop tweeting about them. Once word is out, curious viewers have the ability to catch up via cable on-demand, Netflix, the network’s website, iTunes or other methods. And once hooked, viewers are much more likely to show up when the show airs in pattern on the network.
Still, a show has a better chance of surviving if it airs on a cable network. Better still if it airs on a premium cable network.
“You have to distinguish between broadcast network patience and cable network patience,” says Kevin Beggs, prexy of Lionsgate Television Group, which produces Mad Men for AMC.
Mad Men has been a critical darling almost since its premiere, and Emmy named it top drama four years in a row before Homeland finally supplanted it last year. Mad Men never has garnered a big audience by television standards, but after the series was sold to Netflix in 2011 in a deal estimated to be worth between $70 million and $100 million, its season five premiere in 2012 jumped 41% to 3.5 million viewers, a series high. (Showing there can be a ceiling, for season six’s two-hour premiere April 7, viewership slipped just a bit to 3.4 million.)