What NBC’s ratings woes can teach us about TV and web series aesthetics

Keep smiling and people might watch us

Keep smiling and people might watch us

It’s not news that NBC’s ratings are in the toilet, and the vast majority of critics will argue that it’s a result of the network developing and airing shows that have narrow audience appeal. Shows like Kings, 30 Rock, and the recently-premiered The Listener might be hailed by critics and appreciated by TV nerds like myself, but they don’t appeal to an audience large enough for broadcast television standards.

That’s the traditional way of thinking. But a closer look at the numbers in the age of Hulu and the DVR suggests something a bit different. People don’t watch NBC when the shows air, but NBC shows like The Office are some of the most-viewed premium shows on the web, and they’re DVRd more than most other shows too. What that says is people are watching – in fact they’re watching very closely, making appointments to make sure they have the time to sit down and catch every little Liz Lemon quip and small piece of elaborate production design in the Kings kingdom.

I’m suggesting that higher ratings are not about how narrow or broad the narrative content is. It’s more about the way that content is presented. The overall look and feel of the content encourages audiences to engage with the content in a specific way; NBC’s shows encourage a more focused level of engagement, requiring viewers to seek out venues where they can devote more of their attention to the content.

Few would argue this is the case when comparing shows airing on cable to shows airing on broadcast TV. There’s a marked difference between a show like Breaking Bad (on AMC) and a show like Two and a Half Men (the highest-rated comedy on TV, on CBS). Bad has what you might call a “cinematic” feel to it; it’s single camera, follows a complex protagonist, and requires viewers to pay attention to and analyze what’s going on. In contrast, Men takes viewers by the hand a lot more, following a clearer, defined format that involves segmentation and repetition of key plot points so viewers don’t really need to pay attention to what’s going on in order to be involved. Men encourages a more casual viewer engagement. It’s the type of show you can put on in the background while you’re doing the dishes; Breaking Bad is not.

I think you can say the same thing when comparing a lot of NBC shows to higher-rated counterparts. My favorite joke in last season’s 30 Rock was a quip form Will Arnett, playing a GE executive. “We’re just called G now, I sold the E to Samsung. Now they’re called Same-sung.” Hilarious – but if you’re not paying attention, you might miss it or not understand it. 30 Rock requires the viewer to pay attention or else he or she risks missing a joke. Two and a Half Men has a laugh track.

Maybe casual viewing is the point and purpose for broadcast networks in the new media hierarchy. Really, I’m just defining two different kinds of flow; one is and always had been unique to broadcast, one has developed more with cable. I’d argue that the new television aesthetic emerging on cable and now extending to broadcast doesn’t really respect the traditional flow television. That’s why we want to skip commercials or watch online with limited interruptions; the same kind of segmentation and interruption that once defined broadcast TV doesn’t apply to 30 Rock or Breaking Bad.

So in the future, broadcast networks should stick to that original model, providing a televisual experience filled with programming meant to be watched casually, allowing viewers to channel surf and make popcorn while Seacrest throws to the boring pre-taped interviews on Idol. Cable can provide that more intense experience, giving us shows that encourage a more focused level of audience engagement like Breaking Bad, The Shield, and The Sopranos.

And then there’s the web. Viewing habits outlined above suggest that audiences are using the web like a secondary DVR, and I think that’s one purpose. I also think the casual aesthetic has proven it has very important place on the web. But in terms of original programming created for the web, I think we need to take this as a lesson and focus on the premium experience, having our content encourage a more focused level of engagement. Before you start citing data about short form content and the frenetic, frenzied nature of surfing the web, let’s take a moment to recognize that CBS doesn’t really stream its hit shows online (certainly compared to how much NBC and ABC focus on it). CBS’s biggest comedy only has short clips on its website. Why aren’t fans clamoring to see Two and Half Men online? Because that’s not the best way to view it, so no one cares.

So to really take off, web series need to be bigger. The interactive experience already encourages a more intimate relationship with media; why not take advantage of that by making narrative content for the web that does the same?

A test of this theory will come in the fall, when NBC premieres two promising new comedies. Community is a single-camera following a quirky character. It has a great cast, no laugh-track, and moves through jokes quickly.

In contrast, 100 Questions is a multi-camera sitcom with a laugh track (the first in a while from the network; it almost seems off brand for them to be airing a multicam!). The show is about as standard as you can get, with a cute female lead, attractive and charming ancillary characters, and a narrative that follows the standard sitcom format as closely as any show on TV.

Which will do better? You heard it here first: Community will have a strong, devoted fan following but will struggle in the ratings. It will be one of the highest streamed shows on Hulu and might even make an appearance in the iTunes top 10, like Kings did. 100 Questions won’t do amazingly well either (comedies always take a while to find their feet), but will steadily grow its audience as the season progresses and will, in general, be deemed by the media the more ‘promising’ show of the two.

I will happily admit defeat if wrong.

Full disclosure: I work for NBC.

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