As technology continues its assault on traditional television models, success is no longer just about overnight viewing figures. So in today’s crowded drama marketplace, what defines a hit – and how are our views of success changing?
When the BBC and FX announced there would be a second season of Tom Hardy’s extraordinary period drama Taboo (pictured above), the UK pubcaster took the unusual step of spelling out exactly why the series would return.
Taboo was a solid, if not spectacular, performer on BBC1, drawing three million viewers to its Saturday night debut and staying above 2.5 million for subsequent episodes.
Yet it earned its recommission by becoming one of the most successful dramas ever in terms of views on iPlayer, the broadcaster’s digital catch-up service, a result credited to word of mouth and social network mentions that led new viewers to seek out the series.
Within seven days, episode one’s audience rose to 5.8 million and episodes averaged seven million at the 28-day cut-off. The first episode achieved iPlayer’s third highest audience ever, following Sherlock and docudrama Murdered By My Boyfriend.
Announcing the recommission in March this year, Charlotte Moore, director of BBC Content, said: “Taboo has been a phenomenal success and proves overnight ratings are not the only measure of success, as the series continues to grow beyond live viewing. Launching in a new Saturday night slot on BBC1 provided us with an opportunity to take risks and showcase distinctive drama, and the growing talkability of Taboo has engaged younger audiences, seeing record numbers coming to BBC iPlayer, with the availability of the box set maximising audiences even further.”
The BBC went further, suggesting BARB audience data underestimated the final audience for Taboo as it only recognised iPlayer viewers using the service via a connected television and not through laptops, mobiles and tablets.
Sue Gray, the pubcaster’s head of audiences, added: “The live broadcast audience remains important and we know audiences highly value collective viewing experiences. However, an emerging younger audience group is increasingly influenced by social recommendation and will come when the ‘noise’ around a series becomes compelling. The broadcast moment can fan this flame, with BBC1 and iPlayer providing a virtuous circle which maximises audience opportunity to engage. Broadcasters and commentators increasingly need to play the long game in their quest to understand audience behaviour.”
In truth, the emphasis on viewing figures has been waning for several years as box set binges have become a worldwide phenomenon. Ratings for a single episode no longer provide a clear picture of how many people have watched – and will watch – a programme over the days and weeks after it airs, while digital platforms ensure programmes can be watched and rewatched long after their initial debuts. So how do those in the industry now define a successful series?
Despite putting less focus on overnights, writers, producers and commissioners will admit to still keeping an eye on the ratings just to see whether they have an instant hit on their hands – unless you happen to ask people at Fox, the US broadcaster that decided overnights were “no longer relevant” in November 2015.
In a letter to staff, co-CEOs Dana Walden and Gary Newman explained why the network would no longer be publishing Live + Same Day ratings. “The connections between viewers and our shows today are more complex and, in many ways, deeper than ever – but they no longer only happen overnight,” they wrote. “So why do we, as an industry, wake up every morning and talk about those Live + Same Day numbers?
“This has to stop. It’s time for us to ‘walk the walk’ and change the conversation. The Live + Same Day rating does not reflect the way people are watching our series. It leaves out the vast majority of fans who choose to watch on DVRs, and virtually ignores those who stream our shows or watch on-demand.”
Though they might not admit it quite as openly, other US broadcast networks are clearly taking less notice of overnights, if the decline of early cancellations of freshmen scripted series is anything to go by. Once upon a time, it would only have been a matter of weeks, or a handful of episodes, before the first series would be cancelled each fall as a result of low ratings. But for the past two seasons, shows that have received a lukewarm reception have been allowed to play out their first-season orders to try to generate the catch-up numbers that are now such an important part of the business.
Only those dramas seemingly without any hope – see 2016/17 examples Doubt (CBS) and Time After Time (ABC) – are unceremoniously pulled from the schedules.
The Walking Dead aside, most cable shows would be happy to have the ratings scored by cancelled network series, as pay TV provides a supportive model for dramas tackling niche genres – particularly science fiction.
That’s why IDW Entertainment, producer of Wynonna Earp and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, defines a ‘hit’ on a case-by-case basis. “It’s looking beyond the ratings, as the audience varies widely from network to network and digital,” says president David Ozer.
“IDW plays in the genre space, so the fandom plays such a huge role in determining a ‘hit’ for us. What’s happening on social media? What’s the audience saying? Are they trending? Who’s showing up to cast promotional events? We obviously need to deliver as large an audience as possible for the network and/or streaming platform, but there are other factors definitely involved now beyond traditional ratings.”
These days, actors can often be found live-tweeting along to their show as it airs, speaking directly to fans, while events like Comic-Con can propel a drama’s popularity, often before it has begun airing.
“Wynonna Earp is fascinating to watch,” Ozer says. “Week after week, we saw ratings growth [on Syfy], but also social media growth where we were trending weekly. The series gained a large LGBTQ audience because of one of the storylines, and you felt momentum. When it came to time for a renewal, Syfy was inundated with fan responses, and not just the usual letters but genuine notes about how important the series was to them.
“With Dirk Gently, BBC America saw immediate time-period growth and, again, a lot of activity across social media, and a second season was ordered. There was a buzz about the show that continued to grow, and reviews were very positive. While we don’t see actual results with Netflix [where both shows are available in certain territories], we were able to see success based on the social media conversations internationally.”
At Irish broadcaster RTÉ, acting MD of television Dermot Horan describes a hit show as one that “delivers more than its timeslot’s average consolidated audience, but which also delivers well on the RTÉ Player and gets positive social media and press coverage.”
That definition has emerged because much drama is now consumed via DVRs or VoD services, due to “the increase in linear channel competition, the rise of SVoD players in Ireland, the numbers of homes with PVRs and the increase in homes without TVs,” Horan adds.
For Piv Bernth, head of drama at Danish pubcaster DR, a successful drama is one that both attracts a strong audience and stands out from the crowd. “Of course, the enormous competition makes you look more over your shoulder, but I think the conclusion so far is not to get confused by the oceans of TV series and instead to keep the focus on what kind of content you think will make a difference,” she says.
“From a public service point of view, the choice of story and the way it is told is as important as the obligation to tell stories that reflect the lives of the audience and create a debate. At DR, we try to do original stories, like Avingerne (The Legacy), Bedrag (Follow the Money) and, coming soon, Herrens Veje (Ride Upon the Storm) – all series with complex stories told through relatable characters and, therefore, entertaining and understandable. That is still the way to measure a success – get good viewing figures on series that makes a difference.”
Jakob Mejlhede Andersen, broadcast group MTG’s exec VP of programming and content development for the Nordic region, found success this year with comedy-drama Swedish Dicks, which set viewing records on MTG’s Nordic streaming service Viaplay. “We believe a hit happens every time a viewer is engaged by our content,” he says. “That’s why we’re doing everything we can to create an inclusive portfolio that speaks to everybody while raising important questions. We’re on a journey to become the Nordic region’s leading producer of original content, and today we have more than 50 projects in the pipeline.”
MTG is reaching viewers across streaming, free TV and pay TV services, and Mejlhede Andersen says the multi-platform approach allows the broadcaster to differentiate its content depending on where it is being made available. For example, Viaplay’s latest original series, Veni Vidi Vici, explores the descent of a struggling Danish movie director into the adult film business – a story the exec says “works much better on-demand through a streaming service than on primetime linear TV.”
Beyond ratings, MTG is now also using international distribution deals to measure success, with Swedish Dicks being picked up for global sales by Lionsgate. “Of course, we’ll keep listening to our audiences to ensure our stories always entertain and engage,” Mejlhede Andersen adds.
Christophe Riandee, vice-CEO of Gaumont, which produces Pablo Escobar drama Narcos for Netflix, says that while the way people watch TV today means it is harder than ever to define a hit, “one way that speaks the loudest is when you have volumes of fans engaged with your shows.”
He continues: “From social media engagement to consumer products, fans across the world let you know that you have a hit. Netflix does a great job activating fans, developing extensive campaigns that are unique to different platforms, creating hundreds of original assets for social media channels and engaging directly with fans.
“Within the first three months of the launch of Narcos, Netflix had amassed a social following of two million fans [of the show] across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and, over the course of the campaign, afforded Narcos the title of the most mentioned Netflix original series on social in 2015.”
Gaumont was also behind another Netflix drama, horror series Hemlock Grove – and while the streamer famously keeps even its own suppliers in the dark about viewing figures, Riandee highlights one surefire way you can judge ‘success’ online: “I would say by the number of seasons a media partner is ordering. Netflix ordered two additional seasons of Narcos at the same time; we are currently in production on season three.”
Despite their reluctance to release ratings, SVoD services are now key to building audiences, often long after a drama has debuted, and later seasons can see a bump in live ratings after viewers have caught up online. AMC’s Breaking Bad was one of the first to enjoy that kind of success in a world where TV shows are finding it harder and harder to break through.
“First and foremost, a show has to be good.It needs compelling storytelling and quality production with a best-in-class team and talent,” IDW’s Ozer says when asked what it takes for a show to be deemed a success in today’s crowded market. “We are spending quite a bit of time ensuring we’re bringing unique properties to the market, with major elements attached. Our recently announced Locke & Key deal with Hulu is a great example, where we have bestselling author Joe Hill, Carlton Cuse as our showrunner and Scott Derrickson as our director.
“With so much programming in the market now, it has to stand out. There are shows that are perceived as hits now based on outside influences, series that have catapulted through word of mouth. There is also the ‘hang around theory,’ meaning if a show is around for multiple seasons, because of content distribution platforms like EST [electronic sell-through] and SVoD, more people can find it later in its run, creating value for the networks.”
In an ideal world, RTÉ’s Horan would like to see a single rating – combining live and non-live views – used to judge the success of series, but that may be several years away.
“The other point to make is that less can be more these days,” he notes. “For free-to-air channels, it is all about cutting through and having programmes in your schedule that make an immediate impact. Thus short-run series like Doctor Foster, Happy Valley and The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story can work better than the longer-running US network dramas.”
For now, though, Riandee believes success will continue to be measured through a combination of ratings and social media. “But to have that success, now more than ever we have to provide the market with shows that are compelling,” he says, “with novelistic and addictive storylines, AAA showrunners to deliver highly visual cinematic programming and, of course, relatable actors.”
tagged in: BBC, CBS, Christophe Riandee, Dana Walden, Dermot Horan, Doubt, DR, Fox, Gary Newman, Gaumont, IDW Entertainment, iPlayer, Jakob Mejlhede Andersen, MTG, Narcos, Netflix, Piv Bernth, Ratings, RTÉ, Social media, Sue Gray, SVoD, Swedish Dicks, Taboo, Viaplay, Wynonna Earp