As network ratings crash and burn, can sci-fi TV be saved?

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Jul 1, 2014, 5:08 PM EDT

In case you haven't been keeping up the past few years, network TV ratings pretty much suck these days. Every genre has taken a hit, and science-fiction is far from immune to the epic decline. It's gotten to the point broadcast networks (ABC, NBC, Fox, CBS and The CW) have had to essentially redefine the definition of a "hit," as shows with sometimes-mediocre ratings can hang around a few years or longer, for fear that something else might do even worse. So what's the problem, and how do we solve it?

We don't claim to know the answer, but we have some pretty good ideas about what's wrong and what might help. We've also talked to a few producers and writers for some of our favorite sci-fi shows and gotten their thoughts on the matter. We'll also go ahead and introduce the competitive, not-so-metaphorical elephant in the room: Cable. This could also be called the "Game of Thrones and Walking Dead Problem." The fact is, a lot of the best stuff on TV isn't actually on the major networks anymore — its shifted over to cable, or services like Netflix, and put down roots. All it takes is a quick glance through a list of Emmy winners or nominees the past few years to see that major network fare is fewer and farther between. Looking for the good stuff? Most people go to cable these days. That's a problem, but its not the only one.

Major networks might not have as many of the buzz-worthy hits as cable these days, but its still important for them to survive. They still reach the widest audience possible numbers-wise, since cable isn't technically required to pick them up, and their size and scope traditionally means they have bigger budgets to play with. So, the broadcast nets still have a lot of resources...they're just losing a lot of viewers.

As Vulture showed in this nifty (and extremely depressing) infographic, a staggering 87 percent of returning network shows were either down, or flat, in the ratings this past season. Yes, 87 percent. So how did sci-fi do? Just one show was in the short plus column — veteran CW performer Supernatural — which was actually up 27 percent year-to-year. Kudos, Winchesters.

Everything else? Down. Way down, or barely breaking even. Revolution had the biggest decline of all, regardless of genre, at 44 percent (which explains its abrupt, merciful cancellation). Nikita clocked a 40 percent dive for its farewell run, critical hit Hannibal was down 39 percent (from already paltry numbers), solid performer Person of Interest 26 percent, The Vampire Diaries and Elementary 13 percent,  Community 12 percent, Arrow 8 percent, Once Upon A Time 6 percent, and Grimm broke even.

You don't have to be a ratings expert to realize that ain't good. Of course, that doesn't take into account first-season series like Sleepy Hollow and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that managed to find some viewers, but hits were few and far between last year. Heck, even S.H.I.E.L.D. was on the bubble for a while after hemorrhaging more than half its debut audience. The jury is also still out on how many viewers last summer's hit Under the Dome will retain when it returns, but regardless, it'll likely be the exception and not the rule.

We live in a golden age of awesome television, in a way; it's just that there's not enough people watching it all. 

"The Firefly Conundrum," or why ratings matter

It's an ugly business to talk about ratings, but any serious TV fan knows their importance. Even the best show on the planet won't survive past a few episodes without eyeballs watching it.

It's a well-worn example, but its still one of the best: Just look at Joss Whedon's beloved, acclaimed and quickly-cancelled 2002 Fox series Firefly. During its far-too-brief run, the series averaged a ho-hum (for the time) 4.7 million viewers. Low ratings make the air time less valuable, which equates to less ad sales for the network. Which equals cancellation. Bears relieve themselves in the woods, life ain't fair, and TV shows live or die based on ratings. 

Which numbers matter? Mostly, the Live +3, which essentially means everything watched live and within three days on DVR. Networks are starting to consider a full week out from air date more and more, but when it comes to ad dollars, the Live +3 remains top dog.

In an interview with TV Line, ABC's EVP of Program Planning and Scheduling Andy Kubitz noted "More people are watching more television." The only problem is that the decades-old Nielsen model — which plops recorders in approximately 25,000 homes to figure out what a sample of the nation is watching, then multiplies that number out as an educated guess, which networks use to make life-or-death decisions — isn't counting them all, because the way we watch TV has changed.

From Netflix, to Hulu to streaming sites and good ole' fashioned DVR stacking (not to mention the prickly topic of illegal piracy) — the old method of rounding up how many people watch X or Y on the boob tube is woefully, painfully outdated. Heck, Netflix's award-winning dramas House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black (plus their upcoming high-concept sci-fi series Sense8) won't even air on a network at all. The game is changing, folks, and we're on the front row. Like it or not.

Why we'll never have a M*A*S*H.-like, 121.6 million-viewer event ever again

Apart from the unstoppable comedy juggernaut The Big Bang Theory and a few of those hugely-popular procedurals still holding on, the rest of network TV is struggling. You don't have to look far to find one of the reasons why: Cable, and the increased competition it brings. 

The Walking Dead's at AMC, and Game of Thrones is on HBO. As you've probably noticed, both of those networks are cable, not traditional broadcast. The creative scales have been tipping toward cable for years now, but The Walking Dead's 15+ million weekly viewers went ahead and dropped an anvil.

Writer Zack Stentz (Thor, X-Men: First Class) cut his teeth as a producer on two critically acclaimed — and perennially low-rated (and ultimately cancelled) — sci-fi shows, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Fringe. Stentz said he believes the ratings problem comes in with increased competition across all mediums, as more and more networks and content companies fight and claw for the same amount of eyeballs:

"It's always funny to compare ratings, because as the market fragments and there are more and more sources of original programming (WGN! Netflix! Amazon!), the slowly growing US population gets divided into ever smaller pieces. People now would kill for the ratings of 5 years ago, the shows from 5 years ago would kill for the ratings of 10 years ago, etc. etc.

I don't so much worry about the smaller audiences, even though it's a little bit sad that you probably couldn't have a MASH finale or a Roots in today's fragmented marketplace.

My concern is much more the fact that it feels like more and more outlets are chasing the same 5-10 million educated, affluent viewers who watch quality scripted television. There are only so many shows those people can watch, and I worry that we've reached peak quality television, especially when you look at Sunday nights when HBO, Showtime, AMC, and even PBS are all showing programs that appeal to pretty much the same audience."

Stentz makes some very good points, and even though we can stack shows on our DVRs and snag them on Netflix to binge-watch, there's still more good stuff out there than even the most devoted TV viewer could hope to digest. The convenience of DVR and the web has given the viewer more control than ever to watch when they want, which is great for us, but it becomes a Catch-22 when we're all waiting around to binge-watch, and in the meantime all the shows we love get cancelled because the ratings crashed. 

Robert Hewitt Wolfe, a co-executive producer on Elementary and Star-Crossed who also worked on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Alphas, noted virtually all TV shows start to erode viewers at some point — but posited streaming and DVR services are likely creating a dent in the Live +7 ratings that are becoming more and more important these days:

"Still, let's say for argument that that erosion has accelerated in recent years. If that's true, it likely has a lot to do with changes in the way people watch content as well as a significant increase in the amount of content viewers have to choose from. We're blessed these days with an abundance of excellent programming, which is wonderful, but there's more good stuff than most people can watch in a given week. With the increased availability of time-shifting, there's little urgency to watching most content. So people get to shows in their own time, which degrades traditional ratings. Networks have reacted to this by creating new ways of viewing, most especially dedicated streaming sites which preserve embedded advertising, but these alternatives also reduce traditional non-time-shifted TV watching."

We'd have to agree, and Wolfe does an excellent job of breaking it down to the basic point — there's a lot of stuff to choose from, and a whole lot more than there was just a decade ago.

"The Event Series Hypothesis," or shorter runs-meet-bigger stakes

One buzzy phrase that has been making the rounds the past few seasons is "event series," which is basically something between a miniseries and short season with a bigger budget, bigger stakes and (oftentimes) bigger actors. Networks hope the concept will be a game-changer, essentially creating a shorter commitment for a (hopefully) better product in an effort to lure in more live viewers for the run.

As Wolfe notes: "Greenlighting (CBS's upcoming event series) Extant was a risky move; greenlighting it with Halle Berry and Steven Spielberg attached was decidedly less risky." Fair enough.

The model had some successes on network, as with Under the Dome, which returns this summer with a second season (another "event"?), and there are at least half a dozen new "event" series in the works across several networks. But, NBC's colossal Rosemary's Baby flop just a few months ago shows they're not all slam dunks, and any model can certainly backfire, regardless of talent and name recognition.

In a lot of ways, it's following a model that has carried cable to its current heights, as Walking Dead became a critical darling with just six ambitious episodes and Game of Thrones keeps it light and tight at 10 installments per season, despite its massive success. The concept worked well for Fox's Sleepy Hollow, which broke big last season with 13 episodes loaded with high stakes and a wild mythology. Networks seem to be slowly shying away from that typical 22 episode season, which can sometimes see viewers wane if the story drags on too long.

Wolfe noted the "event" model is likely to keep growing, and those higher stakes could create a back door to keep fans watching live so they don't miss out on the water cooler (or Twitter) chatter over a big twist or shocking death:

"As for solutions, for all shows, not just science-fiction, I suspect 'event' style shows will become more important.  Shows with huge, surprising twists that affect the regular characters seem to attract more live viewing.  People want to be able to participate in workplace conversations for shows like Walking Dead or Game of Thrones or Scandal, so they watch live. Quality and good word of mouth are still incredibly important, as well. Still, the TV market is changing, and the truth is, learning to monetize shows in new ways is probably more viable than trying to get folks to watch TV live like they did when M*A*S*H was on the air."

The "event" style seems to be the model that is working best these days to shore up the live ratings, and it only takes a glance at Twitter to see why — everyone wants to know who didn't survive Game of Thrones, or The Walking Dead, so they make it appointment viewing in a world of time-shifting. Why? Because the shows have real stakes, and equally as important, they're good enough to capture a public zeitgeist that makes us desperate to know what's going on.

That model won't work for everything, but just look at all the shows knocking off main cast members and tossing in game-changing twists these days, and its easy to see that networks are starting to buy in, for better or worse.

Veteran sci-fi producer Elizabeth Craft, who has served stints on shows such as Dollhouse, The Vampire Diaries and most-recently The 100, took things a step further and pointed out audiences might just be getting bored with the way stories are told in general on network television — namely, the predictable act structure, which pushes writers to sometimes force in micro-cliffhangers into each commercial break:

"I think some of the shrinking network audience is due to the new six act structure for many network dramas.  It's not so much that there are more ads -- people can fast forward through those if they want.  It's that having to have so many acts creates a need for false climaxes throughout the episode.  It hurts the storytelling on a fundamental level, which viewers pick up on whether consciously or unconsciously."

So what's the answer? (Spoiler: There's not one)

Sadly, there isn't one way to fix this. At least not, a good one. There are at least a half-dozen variables at play, all of which are contributing to the practically unprecedented decline we've seen in network ratings over the last 5-10 years.

Cable and streaming have obviously taken a big piece of the pie, giving us an exponentially larger (and, oftentimes, better) selection of content to choose from. Just think back at the best genre stuff over the past few years or so: Battlestar Galactica, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Arrow. Three out of four on that list aren't on the broadcast nets. Plus, you don't even need a TV to watch them, between all the excellent streaming services out there.

Then, there's the nigh-unsolvable problem of the Nielsen ratings system, which gets more and more outdated with each passing season. The obvious solution would be to replace it, but no one can agree on a legitimate standard for the transition — plus, advertising is largely sold and based on Nielsen ratings, meaning that system controls the currency. Therefore, it controls pretty much everything else right now, despite the fact that it doesn't paint the clearest picture (See: clear as mud) in terms of defining how many people are really watching what.

In looking for an answer, Craft said it might take networks stepping outside the typical format they've become so reliant on in the cookie-cutter approach to "hit-making" and taking a shot on more niche programming that is good enough to capture a wider audience based on its quality alone, much like — once again — Walking Dead and Game of Thrones have done on cable:

"It seems to me that networks might do better if they created more great niche programming as opposed to trying to appeal to a mass audience (a tactic that often leaves shows watered down and feeling like everything else that's ever been on television). The Walking Dead, for example, is not a show that one would have guessed would appeal to such a huge audience.  But it was well-executed and compelling — therefore, people watch, even people who've never read a graphic novel or seen a zombie movie. Same thing with Game of Thrones — it's so damn good that people who'd never expect themselves to buy into dragons and White Walkers can't get enough of it. And now, it's HBO's highest-rated show in history.  

Most of what (writing partner) Sarah (Fain) and I pitch appeals to both men and women. But there are times when we want to sell something very female-driven. If that's the case, we need to make sure the show still has several 'male points of entry' because networks don't want to alienate male viewers. But what if we created an amazing show that was geared totally toward women with no thought about whether or not men would like it? I imagine we'd actually get higher ratings (from men as well as women) than a show that forces a male POV where it doesn't naturally go."

Looking at the littered carcasses of would-be hits that litter the network schedules every season, from lame procedurals to paint-by-numbers soapy dramas, its easy to see the point Craft is making.

If nothing else, it'll be interesting to see how networks adjust things on the creative side in an effort to generate buzz and keep eyeballs around. For viewers, it'll hopefully be a good thing, as they try to steal, kill and borrow all the nifty tricks that cable has used to start building its edge. There's no denying that we're in the midst of a monumental change in the way TV works, at even its most fundamental level.

There's no way to predict how the landscape might look in just a few years, much less the next decade. But, science-fiction has always been a resilient genre — and that uncertainty almost has us excited, in a way, to see how this sea change might affect and evolve things going forward.