C3 Affiliated Faculty Member Jason Mittell has an interesting post on the network definitions of casual and dedicated viewers, based on a recent NPR interview with Disney's Bob Iger and what he attributes to a misinterpretation of data on Iger's part. In the interview, Iger said that "the committed or the avid viewer of that series, in a given year, will probably watch somewhere in the neighborhood of a third of all those episodes," speaking of a successful television show in general.
Most likely, Iger's comments were based on a misunderstanding of the idea that the average viewer of a series watches a third of the program, but the entire debacle, for Mittell, underscores the ways in which the industry remains transfixed on quantity of viewing while new models and modes of engagement point the way toward the importance of depth of viewership instead. Here is a partial transcript of the Iger interview.
Mittell writes, "The basic lesson is to always think about how the industry 'knows' its audience and how that knowledge contrasts with our own experiences and analyses."
Back in January, I wrote about some of these issues in looking at how the WB and UPN merged into the CW Network. For both Jason and many of us in the Convergence Culture Consortium, we are particularly fascinated by questions about how the industry can better adapt to rewarding depth of engagement. In this post, I compared the Veronica Mars fan community with the (non) community for Living with Fran, two shows very close in the Nielsen ratings back in 2005. From a ratings perspective, these shows appear equal. However, moving beyond impressions numbers, one is much more likely to be valuable than the other as a franchise, in the success of product placements, in instilling a dedicated viewership, in driving merchandise and cross-platform distribution and cross-platform extensions, etc. In short, one is a program people aim to watch, while the other may often be the lowest common denominator, something people may have on but which few seem to feel is "must-see TV."
I wrote, "The difference is between shows that attract the fans flipping through the channel and shows that people actually seek out to watch. When you value all shows equally, the ratings can't tell the difference. It appears that the involvement of viewers did make a difference when making the decisions for which shows to keep on the CW, however."
The problem is that, even as the industry realizes that series with more dedicated fan bases can be more valuable, the metric for measurement is still impressions and first-time ad sales for a series. While more involved fans are more likely to want to consume merchandise surrounding a show, cross-platform extensions of the story, etc., more likely to pay attention to product placement, more likely to buy the series in another format for archiving purchases, and so on, the metric of success is still largely measured on the Nielsen rating and ad sales, which may explain why folks like Iger still make mental slips when it comes to understanding the qualitative difference among fans.
This isn't to indicate that Iger is inept. After all, my colleague Geoffrey Long here at C3 has written on the blog before about ways in which Iger "gets it."
Be sure to check out Jason's original post for more details on the Iger interview and Jason's reaction about the difference between knowledge among scholars/critics and the view of many entertainment industry executives.