Harry's Law, ratings guinea pig

One of the more interesting stories from the recent round of U.S. upfronts, to me, was about the cancellation of a show I mostly didn’t watch: Harry’s Law. What made the story interesting was that this was the absolute perfect test case for a question a lot of people have been debating lately. That question is: do over-50 viewers matter? Or, as TV By the Numbers claims, do only 18-49 ratings matter to advertisers? Harry’s Law was probably the best test we’re going to get for a long time.

It was, by the standard of total viewers, the highest-rated scripted show on its network. But by the standard of viewers aged 18-49, it was one of the lowest-rated shows even on a very low-rated network. Though Kathy Bates managed an Emmy nomination for the first season, it wasn’t the kind of prestige production that a network might keep on for the awards and reviews. And unlike The Good Wife, it wasn’t owned by its network, so the things that can be done to monetize a show – overseas sales in particular – didn’t matter here. All that it really came down to is whether the network could find advertisers willing to pay broadcast-network prices for viewers over 50. If those buyers exist, then the show earned a renewal. (This is not about the quality of the show, you understand; I haven’t seen it much this season anyway. Just that normally, instinctively, you’d expect a network’s most popular show to get renewed.) But it got canceled.

So it looks like the TV By the Numbers people, with their smug, taunting, link-seeking manner (see, it worked), were right. From the point of view of figuring out what the most popular shows are, total viewers are still worth looking at – as are DVR numbers and other data. But in terms of figuring out what the advertisers will buy, and therefore what will get renewed or canceled, the Coveted Demographic™ really does appear to be the only thing that matters. You have to give credit where credit is due; the TV By the Numbers guys seem to have accurately described the way the broadcast TV business works.

Update: Further evidence that older viewers don’t matter much to networks or advertisers: the Jesse Stone series of TV movies has been canceled by CBS.

One question is whether this kind of situation – popular shows getting canceled because they’re unpopular with younger viewers – will get more or less common. I could see it becoming more common since television viewing is getting more and more stratified by age. The assumption that any popular show will have a sufficient number of young viewers to keep advertisers interested is an assumption that has traditionally worked, and it still works for CBS, but it might not work any more. On the other hand, it could simply be that Harry’s Law getting on the air at all was a fluke: broadcast networks don’t usually greenlight new shows with older stars, precisely because they’re afraid of this situation. It just seems more likely that if you want to build a new show around a middle-aged or older star, it’ll be difficult to sell to a cable network and nearly impossible to sell to broadcast, rightly or wrongly.

Whether advertisers are right about over-50 viewers, I don’t even know and couldn’t begin to generalize about, since every product and service is different. We’ve been over this before, and you can bet that network sales departments have been over it with advertisers: young people today don’t have any money, and they’re not watching TV anyway. But remember, advertisers operated on the same basis that broadcast networks do – that is, even though their model is crumbling beneath them, it still basically sort of works. Broadcast networks have lost a tremendous number of viewers, but they haven’t lost their ability to make money; they just raise the ad prices, and they will continue doing all right until they reach the point where they can no longer raise their prices (or find new places to put text ads in the middle of the show). Advertisers, similarly, are working from a model that may or may not be outdated, but still hasn’t failed.

And networks at least can say with certainty that they’re losing money because they can’t sell enough ads; it’s much harder to say with certainty that an advertising buy has failed to create new buyers for a product. So the broadcast network advertising model could, for all we know, outlast the broadcast networks. Businesses don’t usually change until they absolutely have to, and the current situation seems to be that even NBC is not so hard up for viewers that they need to find a way to monetize over-50 viewers. The current model will keep going until it absolutely positively collapses, and it might never completely collapse in our lifetimes. It’ll get less relevant, because it’s alienating its older core audience and not doing much to bring along a new generation – but that’s true of many art forms and businesses. But I don’t see networks or advertisers really panicking until they reach a point where they can’t make money, and even with cable and DVRs and the internet and so on, that point hasn’t come yet. The slow slide into nothingness is more likely than a sudden swift change.