Lunacon (3)

The third in my shameless padding series on my recent experience at Lunacon 50. This episode: Sci Fi TV 101, or Why All Your Favorite Shows are Doomed. More below the fold.

OK, I made up the subtitle but it does encapsulate the gist of the panel. We were lucky enough to have a moderator who has worked for ESPN in market research for 7 years; for the 5 years before that, she did the same job but at Sci Fi. So it is no stretch to say that she understands the ins-and-outs of how media companies manage their impact. She also had an easygoing style that helped her convey, quite clearly, the complicated interrelations of the business.

First thing I learned: The Nielsen company, which possesses a de facto monopoly on compiling ratings (for TV, radio, and Internet) currently polls about 8000 households — this to cover the roughly 120 million households in the American TV market. This is actually an improvement; until recently, the number was around 5000. I am well-trained enough to comprehend the validity of statistical sampling but I was still blown away: Here is a market worth on the order of tens of billions of dollars, and they can’t be bothered to sample even a percent of the viewers. It’s mind-boggling, really. Although I’m sure the Nielsen people would disagree, I think this is amplified by the exacting care with which they build their sample. It’s not really a “random” sample; it’s designed to capture at least one person from hundreds of different demographics.

The progress of technology has not been kind to Nielsen. Sure, the computerized set-top boxes gives them accuracy undreamt of in the 1970s. On the other hand, there are now a myriad of ways in which one can watch a TV program — live, live-delayed, TIVOd, taped, purchased on iTunes, etc. — and capturing all of them is hard. Even if you can, it’s not clear how to interpret the numbers or (most critically for them) how much to charge for a given slice of time. Any stream not accounted for becomes a frictional term that messes up their models. What I took away was this: Even if you concede that the Nielsen way of rating TV shows once worked well — say in the Silver Age of TV, the 1970s — it’s increasing clear that the system is broken now and is ever-more-wildly misrepresenting the actual market for creative product. The Emperor’s clothes are getting threadbare.

Our moderator performed a great service by relentlessly — nay, even ruthlessly — reminding people that “show business” is a business. If your favorite show keeps getting canceled, it’s because the network people know (or think they know) that they can’t make money off it. Sometimes they are spectacularly wrong (Star Trek stands out as a classic example) but usually they are right. In any event there most likely is not a conspiracy to keep good sci-fi off the airwaves.

Well, except maybe at Fox, but what would you expect? 🙂

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