Sunday, August 26, 2012

Remote Control...Or Lack Thereof

I'm quite good at recognizing the issues. I'm not so good with figuring out the solutions. I'd venture to say that the majority of people fit into these same categories, including those who think they have plenty of solutions to plenty of issues, but are actually just complete jabronies. This is also why being President of the United States, when you think about it, totally blows.

I recently spoke with Cleveland native Yvette Nicole Brown, who plays Shirley on the NBC sitcom Community, for our Cleveland Magazine Fall Arts Preview. One of the things we discussed  was the incongruity between what the overwhelmingly positive television critics and cult-like viewers think of the show, contrasted with the program's overall low ratings. Yvette noted that she felt the conventional viewership ratings method (the Neilsen system, essentially) was a poor barometer for Community and its impact on TV viewers and pop culture.

“The funny thing is that I feel the Nielsen system probably needs to be revamped. … I get recognized for Community way more than anything that I do, which tells me that there are more people watching than we know,” Yvette told me. “So I think the people that are watching Community, they're watching in groups, they're watching it online – they're not necessarily sitting around a family table with a Nielsen box. So I think it's unfortunate that the love of this show is not being counted, but I think there is way more [people] watching than we know of.”

Her answer was pretty typical of what I would expect from someone in her position (which isn't to say that it wasn't a good answer), but I still found it rather intriguing, and I actually agreed with her general sentiment. Community is an extremely popular show among people of my age group, and anyone that delves into the this country's current pop culture rabbit hole is well aware of how passionate the fanbase truly is about this sitcom. And yet at the same time, you can't fault NBC for only giving it a half-season slate of episodes this year and banishing it to Friday night's this fall, because the ratings overall remain extremely low. It's remarkable the show (entering it's fourth season) has lasted this long in the first place. So what's going on here? Which is correct: the ratings system, or Yvette's criticism of it? Is the viewership merely small and boisterous, or is it misrepresented and overlooked?

In any event, I had largely moved on from Yvette's comments until a few weeks later, when I read an interview on Rolling Stone's website with Rashida Jones, who plays Ann Perkins on NBC's Parks and Recreation. Parks & Rec is in much the same situation as Community — lauded by television critics and adored by fans, but also with pretty disappointing audience returns (albeit slightly better than those of Community's). But while reading the interview, my eyebrows noticeably arched at the similarity of Ms. Jones' comments to what Ms. Brown had told me less than a month earlier.

“People aren't really watching TV. They're watching box sets. They're watching Tivo. They're watching DVR. They're streaming movies and TV shows on their laptops. They haven't found a way – not to get too nerdy about it – but they haven't found a way to monetize that,” Rashida told Rolling Stone. “Advertisers pay for TV, right? And they don't know how people are actually watching these shows. People actually watch Parks and Recreation, but not in the way that they can monetize.”

I suppose it's entirely possible that the parallels in these two comments are the results of NBC passing along a few coaching points to the impressive actors of its fledgling sitcoms, but I doubt that's the case. What's more likely is that Rashida and Yvette simply both feel the same way about their shows; in spite of the dismal numbers they are receiving in viewership, the reception these actresses receive in their everyday interactions with the outside world are all pointing to the complete opposite. These are two ladies that have done a lot of major TV and movie spots, Jones especially. And if they aren't being completely and downright dishonest about their individual experiences — and really, what good would lying do them? — then there is probably some amount of truth to what they are saying. The question is, how much truth?

Writer Will Leitch, of Deadspin and New York Magazine notoriety, authored an interesting article during the Olympics for the beta blog of the newly launched Sports on Earth website. The piece delved into the topic of NBC tape-delaying the majority of the London-hosted Olympic Games (I didn't realize NBC would be so prevalent in this post, but at least it's now prevalent somewhere, AMIRIGHT???). I thought Leitch did a nice job of detailing the divide between the collective grumblings regarding tape-delay programing by the media/younger, social-media-savvy sports fans and TV viewers, compared to the still stellar ratings of those nightly tape-delayed events and the large portion of older-skewering Americans that were contently watching. Leitch's point focused more on the development of Twitter into a two-week message-board where people could relentlessly bash NBC for its seemingly short-sighted plan to air major medal events six hours after they actually occurred...and that ultimately, NBC didn't care, because the fraction of Twitter users in this country is realistically pretty minute, something obvious only to those that don't use it. But in a macro sense, Leitch's column was pointing out the ocean-size chasm between how the hipper-and-younger culture consumes entertainment, versus the quieter-yet-richer and larger-than-you-think population that has no clue who the hell One Direction is.

“The vast, vast majority of people are not following these Games through Twitter or NBCOlympics.com; they are following them through their televisions. … NBC isn’t doing a disservice to its viewers. It’s just ignoring the ones who don’t matter,” Leitch wrote. “NBC didn’t just sign a $4.38 billion contract over the next eight years so it could make me happy on Twitter. NBC did it so people could watch on television.”

This is the alternative side of the TV spectrum. At odds with the young and more technologically advanced audience, alluded to by Yvette Nicole Brown and Rashida Jones, is the older and more traditional audience that Leitch was describing — ya know, the people that own houses and have families and pay for cable subscriptions and actually sit through commercials when something other than live sporting events are on.

So if both groups are relevant, which certainly seems to be the case, and both groups are important — the one will eventually usurp the other, unless the confines of modern medicine take some major leaps forward in the near future — which group is more relevant and more important?

The truth is, most likely, that we are somewhere between the two. The way people watch TV is changing, but that doesn't mean it needs to be completely revamped overnight. Those comprising the back end of the transition haven't quite dwindled so much that they can be disregarded, but we are constantly moving in that direction. Things do need to change, but only at a pace fluid enough to appease one side and stagnant enough to not piss off the other.

I don't exactly have a solution for this, but you have to admit, I've done a damn fine job of recognizing the issue.


Thanks for reading

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