'Modern Family''s Steve Levitan Calls for Better Tracking of TV Sitcom Audiences Online

4:59 PM PST 07/30/2011 by Etan Vlessing
ABC/Lou Rocco

“The minute the carrot is lost, that we’re giving away things so much that we aren’t able to make the big syndication score… the ability to make big shows will be lost and the quality will suffer."

MONTREAL -- Steve Levitan has learned to stop worrying and love digital platforms.

The Modern Family co-creator just wants the TV ratings system to better measure and monetize the hit ABC comedy’s online and DVR viewership beyond overnight numbers.

“If there’s a big number that came out at the end of two weeks, and said here’s how it ranked when you add up all DVR, online and everything, that would more accurately reflect the audience,” Levitan said while attending the Just For Laughs comedy festival in Montreal.

That’s more conciliatory than a year ago when Levitan said he unsuccessfully lobbied Disney-ABC to yank Modern Family from Hulu, ABC.com and other online platforms to see if the sitcom’s ratings rose.

Levitan now accepts everyone’s wrestling with how to better track TV viewership online and elsewhere in a rapidly changing TV landscape.

“It’s not as cut and dry as they’re (Disney-ABC) trying to build a business on Hulu off of our show, without us getting the upside of that. I don’t feel that’s the case that much anymore,” he said.

But Levitan still fears the fallout for popular comedies that don’t get proper credit for online viewership, namely not remaining on a network's primetime schedule to get to syndication.

“The minute the carrot is lost, that we’re giving away things so much that we aren’t able to make the big syndication score… the ability to make big shows will be lost and the quality will suffer,” he argued after participating in a TV showrunner panel during the Just For Laughs comedy conference.

Levitan said Modern Family gets high DVR numbers, but doesn’t get credit for viewers of the comedy after three days, or those that fast-forward through the commercials.

The result is TV shows that don’t target the right age group or niche audience face the chopping block if they don’t deliver viewers that advertisers want to reach.

“If you have a show that caters to a technologically sophisticated audience, or a young audience who watches TV in that newer way, it may hurt you compared to a show that caters to an older audience, or an audience that is at a lower class socially-economically, where they tend to watch TV live, as it happens,” Levitan explained.

He knows Modern Family isn’t threatened by a failure by Nielsen to accurately capture online audiences as TV viewers increasingly watch what they want and when they want to on a myriad of digital platforms.

But other sophisticated comedies are threatened. 

“Now some people are saying, that’s how they watch shows. That’s great, Just make sure we know that,” Levitan urged.

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