This piece originally appeared on Feb. 20, 2006, on the Convergence Culture Consortium from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Sam Ford blogs weekly there about soap operas in relation to fan cultures and innovative storytelling and marketing campaigns, in addition to blogging about many other new media issues updated multiple times daily. You can visit his blog here.
A really interesting discussion has been taking place on the official Procter & Gamble Productions message board for Guiding Light, based on a comment made by a PGP moderator on the board on what the fans mean to the show in the overall business scheme, and where the online fan community stands in contrast to the Neilsen ratings. In many ways, I think it is a discussion that should be happening not on the boards of fan communities but in the offices of the sponsors behind these programs.
To give you a short recap. The moderator, Alina, stated that "a headwriter's job is to make the sponsors happy. They're the customers who pay the bills" and that "the only way to gauge fan happiness is ratings (message boards, magazine polls and Emmys are nice, but they mean nothing if the numbers aren't there)." Fans were upset by Alina's comments, believing that this process is backward and that making fans happy should in turn lead to maximum profit for sponsors, not the other way around. It's a case of someone wanting to shoot the messenger, though.
Alina responded by pointing out that "the 1000 or so people on this board are a tiny number compared to the overall audience, right?" She suggested that fans should "try to get as many people as you know to stop watching the show for, say, a week [ . . . ] and then see if it moves the Neilsen needle. That will give you an idea of the sort of numbers TPTB are looking at, versus what we on the boards are looking at."
Unfortunately, Alina has taken the brunt of fan anger on the board for the comments, but she is getting at the heart of what is happening in the entertainment industry. Alina is one of the people who "get it" the most in the entertainment industry and develops a lot of transmedia content for PGP. She was just stating the harsh reality of the way the industry works right now, for better or for worse.
Sure, it's unlikely that a significant number of the people posting on the boards are a large number of the 5,000 or so Nielsen households that exist at any one time. On the other hand, the question is how viable the Nielsen ratings are in an era when television viewing is splintered by so many choices. Sure, 5000 households may be a good indicator of what people are watching among three or four choices, but what happens when you have hundreds? The Neilsen's are still potentially viable, but can they really be the bible to base success by?
And are Internet message boards then not a viable measurement of a show's success? I guess it depends on what you're looking for. A message board of 1000 or so actual viewers is a bigger sample than 5000 Neilsen households, if everyone on the message boards are viewers of the show. And in the soap industry, fluctuations on a show and between shows are usually only by one or two tenths of one rating point, which would be caused by the change of a channel of a tiny number of Neilsen households.
The Neilsens are probably more flawed than the logic of some of the fans on these boards, but Alina has a good point--if it is what TPTB (sponsors and not creative forces in this case) accept, how do you change the logic that surrounds it?
If you accept that most involved fans are likely to plan their days around the shows and more likely to be more profitable for advertisers and, in the long run, more economic benefit comes from increasing the number of loyal viewers than there is creating a greater number of casual viewers on a particular day.
But Alina's point is important here...As long as the Neilsen's are accepted industry-wide as the guide to go by and as long as that is what sponsors are looking at, how do you change it? It is the sponsors that should see the value in expanding the data they look at beyond just Neilsen numbers.
Sure, a lot of the most vocal fans on the Internet aren't necessarily the best indicator. You can't write too much for an online audience who is likely to complain no matter what happens, and a lot of them will say they'll quit watching but hardly ever mean it, becuase their involvement with the show is so deep there is great opportunity cost in their minds to quit watching it considering how much time they've invested in the show over the years. On the other hand, it's important to keep the most loyal fans the most happy because they tend to be your cheerleaders, and word-of-mouth is still the best way to grow your audience.
The PGP Boards are a great example of fans and representatives of the company getting together and not discussing the company line but rather having a conversation, as a group of individuals. Sure, these discussions are not smooth, but the issues aren't really smooth, either, when there's so many transitions taking place so rapidly in the media industry.