Casual vs. dedicated viewers


So I happened to catch part of a really interesting interview with Disney CEO Bob Iger the other day on NPR’s Marketplace. In it, Iger is making a good point – that new digital delivery systems of TV shows don’t cannibalize network viewership as much as enhance & extend viewer access and engagement – but along the way he says the following: “A successful TV series will produce between 22 and 25 episodes each season. And 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.”

Huh? I couldn’t believe that, as it makes you wonder what they mean by “committed or avid” if they’re only watching 1/3 of a series – what other form of commitment could you imagine that consisted of 1/3 engagement in something? I checked it out with my friend Amanda Lotz, my guru for insider industry knowledge – she found a reference from another ABC exec who said that the average viewer (not committed or avid) watches around 1/3 of a series. Let’s assume that Iger got his data miscategorized, but this is a pretty significant shift in thinking about viewership. If I’m running a network and think that my most engaged viewers are only going to watch 1/3 of a series, I’m going to demand programming in the model of the 1970s, with no serialization and clear internal redundancy. The presence of series like Lost, 24, and Veronica Mars suggests that networks realize that there are a good number of viewers who do catch most episodes – but what’s the proportion of casual to avid viewership on any show?

This throwaway (probably mistaken) statistic highlights how different the knowledge media scholars have about the practices of TV viewing is from the industry’s knowledge. In studying the rise of complex narrative, I’m positing ways of viewing and engagement based on a model of active, dedicated fandom. It would be quite useful for me to have a sense of what shows have more dedicated viewers and which ones tend toward the casual, and see how narrative forms seem to attract differing viewing patterns. How do networks even count a show’s “casual viewers”? If I watch one episode, am I counted in the pool? All this data is out there, but it’s under wraps by Nielsen unless you pay the steep price – and companies who do pay for it aren’t interested in sharing. 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.

Speaking of dedicated viewing, check out Derek Kompare‘s take on Lost & seriality on MediaCommons today and join in the conversation.

6 Responses to “Casual vs. dedicated viewers”

  1. Excellent point about what the industry “knows” and what we “know.” It reminds me of a point that, I think, TV critic Bill Carter made in an interview on KCRW’s The Business several months ago. His point was that, despite all the serious anxiety about and development of Iger’s “new digital delivery systems,” the business was still (and will remain still) premised on (in his words) “people sitting on their butts in front of the TV at 9 pm on Thursday night.” In other words, as it’s always been. In other other words (maybe), casual viewers.

    Of course, these forms of knowledge (of the industry’s “casual” viewer, and the critics’ “active/fannish” viewer) already co-exist, and are demonstrable (through various and, as you point out, often exclusive, means). The big question, the fly-on-the-wall-in-Burbank-office-suites question is: how are these knowledges factored into series development? Or scheduling? Or salary negotiations? Or online narrative expansion?

    Great post, Jason; I look forward to more of this discussion!

  2. 2 Jonathan Gray

    I think of voting for sports awards, which often takes the form of voting for first, second, and third, with each first place vote giving one 3 (or 10) points, second place 2 or (5) points, and third place 1 point. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to see whether two programs with seemingly identical ratings actually break down to vastly different qualitative fan bases?

    And does the definition of casual or dedicated transfer wholesale across genres (ie: must one watch the same number or percentage of a sitcom to be a fan, as of an hour-long, or a game show, etc.?)

    It’s all very Foucauldian — the regime of knowledge that Nielsen establishes completely leaves us flailing on the outside with lots of questions

  3. 3 Cole Moore Odell

    Speaking of fictional shows only, I wonder if typical “avid viewers” tend to be avid about everything they watch, or pick and choose, following some shows religiously while checking out others only once in a while. As someone without a TV who watches episodic television exclusively via DVD, I’m in the former category by definition for every show I watch (making me tangential to a discussion of programming decisions based on ratings–or am I?)

    With rare exception, I’ve never really enjoyed TV shows that *didn’t* make me watch all of them in order. I require at least the illusion of forward momentum in order to bother. (Probably this stems from comic books training me to expect continuing plot threads and cliffhangers.)

    Avid viewership seems to me to be indicative of a basic psychological bent in the viewer; being drawn to programs that reward that kind of loyalty by requiring you to watch every episode consecutively. Watching a show that way is akin to a collector mentality, although in this case one is “collecting” viewing experiences.

    I wonder how many casual viewers exist of “my” shows–BSG, Gilmore Girls, Sopranos, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Office and ahem, Smallville. How do they watch these series, and why? What does someone not versed in all of the plot details and subtext generated by knowledge of the accumulated history get out of the experience? Is it simply the time-killing appeal of watching attractive people engage in banter/arguments, punctuated by pretty explosions/makeout sessions?

    The rise of complex narrative in current TV echoes a tension the mainstream comic publishers dealt with decades ago–and resolved in a way that may or may not apply to TV today. Up through the end of the 1970s, then-Marvel Editor in Chief Jim Shooter insisted that every issue of every Marvel comic be written with new readers in mind. “Every issue is someone’s first,” he said. Therefore, while continuity existed, by mandate each issue also had the “clear internal redundancy” you speak of–three or four pages of a 17-page story were taken up with plot recaps which typically required heroes to hash over the recent events of their lives in their heads over and over, and people usually addressed each other by their full names and titles.

    As the mass market for comics collapsed and they retreated to the direct market of comic book shops serving a narrow, self-selected market of hardcore fans, the new-reader-friendly approach was almost entirely abandoned (thought balloons are almost non-existent these days) while complex continuity increased. To understand anything but the very surface of many post-70s superhero books, you needed vast, arcane prior knowledge and correspondingly deep pockets. Like many TV shows, these comics may occasionally offer stand-alone stories or publicize “jumping-on points” but the main thrust is rewarding (or perhaps enabling, even fleecing are better terms) obsessive fans. Comics made a clear decision to walk away from their “casual” viewers and survive by extracting more money from less people. I’m not sure TV could afford to do anything similar, although the fragmentation of the mass audience puts them in vaguely the same boat as comics circa 1979.

  4. This is all quite thought-provoking. I think we need to be really careful about assuming that our mode of engagement with media is at all typical. We also need to be careful about assuming that the fannish mode of engagement has gone full-on mainstream. Just because these densely plotted, serialized narratives reward the close attention of scholars and truly avid fans doesn’t mean that they don’t also reward the attention of viewers who tune in 1/3 of the time. The genius of the serialized prime-time drama structure is that it’s able to please lots of people in lots of ways. All of the serials discussed above also have plenty of episodic plotting. Each Lost episode’s flashbacks focus on a small number of characters and tell fairly coherent stories. 24 typically has hourly goals for Jack to achieve. Veronica Mars has always had mysteries of the week, and more recently has abandoned its arcs to a large extent. BSG, to add another, has lots of stand-alone episodes (I’m thinking especially of the one with Helo and the Saggitarions). Even if you don’t get everything when you miss episodes, you can still get something. Episodes begin with recaps. Dialogue is redundant and repetitive. People watch with friends and family who clue them in. Or they read about developments in the news. We really shouldn’t underestimate or question the pleasures of ordinary viewers who aren’t nearly as invested as the fans and the folks like us–their pleasure is a narrative pleasure too, not just a pleasure in seeing pretty people and other kinds of eye candy. The advantage of the contemporary serial over the 1970s episodic drama is that it manages to hook both the intensely passionate and the more casual viewer, both the people who like to watch a string of episodes uninterrupted on DVD or DVR and the more typical viewer who tunes in only when it’s convenient and might be easily distracted. It’s not either/or.

  5. 5 Cole Moore Odell

    I oversold my conjecture above. Clearly, even most narratively complex shows provide single-episode plots with resolutions. St. Elsewhere was a great early example for me, almost always giving viewers a storyline or character arc introduced and resolved within the episode, cut against ongoing B stories. Then again, St. Elsewhere barely scraped by in a world where Stephen J. Cannell was king.

    I’m not sure how friendly the standalone episodes of a show like Battlestar could be to casual viewers, however, if only because the sf genre itself is so polarizing. I know a few people who would never watch anything remotely sf/fantasy-based no matter how serious, well-made or accessible it was. Ratings seem to bear this out. While BSG is dark, complex and squeaks by on network goodwill, just like St. Elsewhere, perhaps the-just-as-complex-and-twice-as-elliptical Lost achieved its early ratings dominance because it married narrative complexity to the simple appeal of hot people on a tropical island. Similarly, the sunny, glamorous L.A. Law did better in the ratings than its sister ensemble serials on NBC.

    All of this makes me think of daytime soap operas, which stand out from the shows discussed here by specializing in ongoing narrative complexity with very few resolutions in any given episode. If I remember my Guiding Light-viewing days back in high school, 99 out of 100 scenes ended with a question and a pregnant pause. Chris Claremont’s X-Men comic of the 70s and 80s, IMO so influential to many of today’s TV writers, was based on the same model, too busy throwing out new plots to bother concluding any of them.

  1. 1 Casual vs. loyal viewers: the sequel « Just TV

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