Safety in numbers
Just two years ago, NBC's acclaimed sitcom "The Office" was saved from cancellation for two reasons: The Season 1 DVD set was selling well, and episodes made available for download on iTunes were proving incredibly popular. The first factor proved that there was a larger potential audience for the show than NBC had thought, and the second proved that there might be a viable revenue stream beyond the show's commercial broadcast.
A glance at iTunes' best-selling TV episodes reveals a predictable slate of ratings champs, such as NBC's "Heroes," ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" and Fox's "24." (Currently, the iTunes rankings are just about all there is to go on in terms of definitive numbers -- Nielsen does not report data on downloads, and though the networks might take issue with the occasional press release touting their own figures, hard statistics are elusive.)
But there are surprises as well, judging from the iTunes top 20 list as of May 10.
"The Black Donnellys": This highly anticipated NBC offering tanked fast but still has some partisans in cyberspace, making it the 10th most downloaded series as of May 10.
"Hannah Montana": Along with "High School Musical," the popularity of "Hannah Montana" is proof that while the entertainment media looks elsewhere, Disney Channel is producing some of the most-watched programs around. The show ranked 16th in the top 20.
"Lost": According to Nielsen ratings, the former ABC phenomenon is slipping in popularity, but online, that mysterious island still sucks in viewers. It was the fourth most downloaded program on May 10.
"The Riches": It doesn't take a big audience to keep an FX Network show on the air, but it helps when that audience is picking up what they missed online. (It was ranked at No. 20.) Because of its popularity among downloaders, FX already has renewed this under-the-radar family drama.
"Scrubs": After rumors of its imminent demise, the NBC sitcom received a pickup for next season. Being No. 11 on the download chart might have helped swing things in the show's favor.
Off the "episodes" chart and into the "season pass" chart, iTunes reveals even more fascinating tidbits, like the massive audience for Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," "The Colbert Report" and "South Park," all of which do respectable basic cable numbers in the ratings but might be more popular than people think.
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