Media

How Hulu could kill off Nielsen ratings and improve television

Battleground

Battleground

Hulu is staying silent about the initial viewership of its first scripted original series Battleground, which premiered its pilot episode on Monday.

But the company has a plan to measure viewership in a new way, one that could make a huge difference to the survival of shows that have a dedicated following but don’t necessarily command a particular time slot.

Unlike traditional TV programs, Battleground’s success won’t be determined by evaluating the viewership during a predetermined time. When people watch a show isn’t nearly as important as the fact that they’re watching the show, whenever that happens, a Hulu spokesperson told VentureBeat.

Battleground is a half-hour dramedy (drama plus comedy minus the annoying laugh track) about a campaign staff that’s trying to win a Wisconsin senatorial election for an underdog candidate. The show has some top-notch talent behind it like creator/actor JD Walsh and producer/director Marc Webb, whose film credits include 500 Days of Summer and The Amazing Spider-Man movie. It’s also one of the first high-profile series that’s focused entirely on web viewership.

Normally, the premiere episode of a show with this level of hype would be followed by Nielsen TV ratings along with a breakdown of the audience demographics. But because Battleground is distributed as streaming video instead of television sets, it doesn’t have a standard rating system. And while Hulu definitely collected plenty of data about the show, the company isn’t planning to reveal the details — as is its policy for all shows that stream on its service.

Hulu said it plans on measuring the success of its original programs by the level of activity surrounding it, which includes total viewing audience, comments and discussion, social media interactions, and more. This is good for a number of reasons.

A more honest and accurate form of “rating”

The current Nielsen rating system for TV programming is inadequate because it’s based on of a sample of the population measured by a single company. And while ratings in most casts serve as a determination of quality, TV ratings are little more than an indication of programs that get the most number of eyeballs. Whether those people actually like the show isn’t as easily gauged. Hulu, however, only needs to look at the activity of a particular show over a much longer time frame.

It’s pretty simple if you think about it. If people are watching and talking about a show, it’s likely to get more episodes. The audience can also see a more honest representation of what people actually want to watch because others are constantly buzzing about it. If a show doesn’t have any buzz (after a reasonable amount of time), then its likely that no one will care if it’s gone.

New shows are less likely to get killed off prematurely

Based on traditional TV ratings, plenty of good shows were canceled by networks prematurely because they couldn’t draw a large enough audience to bring in advertising revenue during a designated time slot. Even in situations where the network wants to take more of a chance on a show that’s off to a weak start, it’s far more difficult to justify programs that don’t bring in enough ad revenue.

For instance, Firefly was taken off the air by Fox for this reason, despite becoming a cult classic post-cancellation. With Hulu, original shows are likely to get at least a full season to prove itself because the company is far more strategic about their strategy. Hulu isn’t trying to find decent shows that will fill its prime time schedule alongside some really great shows. It’s also worth noting that Hulu’s streaming service allows it to take advantage of shows that are more valuable as an entire season.

More creative and unique shows

When I flip on the television, my cable service rarely provides me with anything new or interesting. Again, this is due to the current TV rating system, which rewards shows that appeal to the highest number of people across all demographics and time slots. The selection of content is mostly stuff everyone is OK with watching when choosing between lots of bad programming.

This is why there’s an abundance of CSI Spinoffs and reality TV shows. When there is a decently entertaining/interesting prime time show on, network executives are behind the scenes imposing changes to boost ratings. I’m not saying these shows still aren’t able to produce quality content from talented people, but creativity is usually hindered on the basis of business.

Since traditional ratings aren’t crucial to the survival of the program, Hulu executive producers are likely to interfere on the basis of quality rather than ratings. In a Hulu blog post published Tuesday, Battleground creator JD Walsh explained his own experiences of “getting ‘network notes’ or revisions or other things that usually doom or plague great shows,” saying that:

“We did get notes, but they were always an attempt — not to satisfy a demographic or a fad or a meme — but instead the notes were to make the show smarter or funnier or more interesting with its storytelling. The show is better because of the relationship we have with (Hulu’s) Charlotte (Koh) and Andy (Forssell). The show will live or die on my point of view on TV or what the tone of the show is. That’s a testament to the trust that Hulu gives its creators to make the show that they believe in.”

Final word

Hulu is breaking new ground in the way of premium original programming, which it obviously realizes. Ultimately, the company’s success will be based on whether it’s able to produce quality content that’s on par with top TV network programming. Since Hulu is owned by three of the largest broadcast TV networks (NBC, ABC and Fox), it’s even likely that this model could create a new standard for how shows are produced and monetized.

For fans of quirky, quality TV shows, that’s very good news indeed.