Michael Wolff: Television Has Outgrown Nielsen

Illustration by: Nate Kitch

New definitions are needed as the traditional measurement can't keep up with how TV is being consumed, audience behavior shifts and digital redefines a medium that can no longer be confined by ratings.

This story first appeared in the May 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

The problem with making the argument about the fundamental decline of television, or the opposite argument — that this is an extraordinary new golden age — may be the word "television" itself.

On the one hand, there is the prevalent view that ad and audience declines are part of a structural condition that links television, in a digital world, with the grim fate of music and print. On the other hand, there is the empirical fact that all anybody talks about is the latest television show, that it is the cultural sine qua non, and that, to boot, TV-pure-play stock prices have seldom been higher. So where exactly is "television"? Headed for the crapper or the summit?

Mad Men, finishing up its extra-ordinary seven-season run, may have become a media phenomenon, and yet it only ever found a limited audience. So, hit or flop? What is the measure? What is the definition?

Television remains television: a historical idea, a physical thing, something judged by neatly fixed standards (Nielsen). At the same time, it arguably has become a much broader notion, much harder to capture and to measure and, in the transformation, a much richer and influential business.

From the TV-industry point of view, it has been frustrating and more and more confounding that television continues to be defined as a business consisting of a fixed screen in the home, whose use is measured by Nielsen. By that definition, television has lost as much as 30 percent of its audience.

That missing audience, however, by most indications, is still pursuing television shows, just not on "television." An episode of MTV's Teen Wolf may have an aggregate television viewership of 8 million, but there is, too, a largely unaccounted for and mostly unmonetized 100 million streams of the show. Reaching something of crisis proportions, virtually every significant television show has seen a meaningful part of its audience move from conventional box to venues outside of traditional measurement, with, arguably, a whole new audience added to it. Meaning television, depending on how you define it, has gotten much larger rather than much smaller.

At the same time, this new audience or this shifted audience — however much it might be eagerly consuming the same basic TV product — is being claimed by new platforms. These new platforms maintain that this loss for television is a gain for them. This is a gain that is not measured by traditional television standards — that is, Nielsen (hence, which might then be credited back to traditional television). Rather, the value of these new platforms lies in the argument that they are not limited by television behavior or its measurements, that they are creating a new entertainment value proposition measured in advancing share price — pay no attention to old-fashioned ratings.

Curiously, while Netflix and Amazon, the two leading non-television television platforms, attempt to define themselves as an alternative to television and even a mortal disruption of it, they pay the traditional television industry more than $3 billion a year in licensing and programming fees.

Part of traditional television's annoyance if not panic is that new platforms, without outside measurement standards, get to declare their own hits — and hence their own success. Indeed, a central aspect of the definitional problem is that commercial television was once exclusively an advertising-driven business, one whose nature was described by Nielsen ratings for the benefit of advertisers. And certainly there is by Nielsen and others a rush to be able to better measure, for the benefit of advertisers, the new TV behaviors — Interpublic recently announced it was buying the new measurement company Samba TV (see more examples, next page).

But now at least half of the television business is driven not by advertising but by a direct consumer interest that's softer and much harder to measure and characterize. You don't have to see House of Cards for it to be immeasurably valuable to Netflix as it builds its brand and attracts new subscribers. Of course, Netflix in itself did not create this model — HBO was first able to describe television success in a way separate from absolute ratings. The pervasive view of television's decline might logically also include zeitgeist-brand shows like Mad Men, which attracts only modest audiences on AMC. Yet the cultural resonance of such otherwise limited hits — "the way it socializes through the population," according to Kern Schireson, Viacom's executive vp data strategy and consumer intelligence — gives networks enhanced clout when they negotiate cable deals.

The traditional television definition is not only handicapped by the inability of its traditional measures to keep up with the new behavior of its audience (an audience consuming in different ways but nevertheless still consuming the same thing), but by the contrast with the new digital scale and standards. BuzzFeed, by a fantastic legerdemain, is able to claim a monthly audience larger than the Super Bowl's, next to which traditional television — no matter that every aspect of it is vastly more profitable than BuzzFeed — appears destined for history's dustbin.

In part, too, as the audience seeks the television experience in new ways, traditional television — that is, traditionally measurable television — is characterized by a stay-behind audience, an older audience that, in traditional television measurement terms that are now coming back to bite the industry in the ass, is so much less valuable.

And yet, virtually every part of the new entertainment distribution ecosystem — from Netflix and Amazon to new streaming services being rushed into place by traditional television to the new premium level that is trying to elevate an unprofitable YouTube — is trying to serve this restless audience with … television. Traditional, narrative, character driven, well-produced television.

But don't call it television.

In the 1980s, television cleaved into broadcast and cable and for more than a decade fought a cold war of ratings declines and advances before it was largely rolled up into a single industry — still defined by Nielsen. It is highly possible that streaming just becomes a third-leg of television delivery, rolled up into a newer, grander, ever-expanding and ever-richer television universe. This does not, however, solve the puzzle of how to put a number on the new television's new form of engagement and ever more variable place in people's lives — for every person, a different television habit and relationship.

And something in television's nature seems to crave a measurement. Television somehow isn't television if you can't define a rise or fall in its power. It's like democracy without counting the votes.

Michael Wolff writes frequently about the media industry. His new book, Television Is the New Television, is out in June.