Politics of Defining a Hit Show

Sep 12, 2004  •  Post A Comment

As the fall season begins, everyone in the hit-driven TV business is, as usual, talking about, well, hits. Conventional wisdom holds that just one slam-dunk can turn around a network. Having a hit on one’s resume often means a long career for a programmer, producer or actor.

What defines a hit these days depends partly on where you work, but as the television business matures the gaps among the definitions of a hit appear to be narrowing.

Clearly, television has changed from the days when “I Love Lucy” would generate a 60 share and shows that did 30 shares got canceled. The bar has become a moving target.

“In broadcast, it’s a number that’s decreasing all the time. In cable, it’s the opposite. It’s a number that’s growing all the time. The bar is higher for a hit,” said Doug Herzog, president of Comedy Central, who has been entertainment president at a broadcaster-Fox-and president of a general entertainment cable network, USA.

Still, the differences-particularly between what broadcast networks consider a hit and cable networks’ idea of one-continue to fuel the tension among TV biz competitors.

At a broadcast network, the answer is simple: Hits are shows watched by the most people.

Cable network executives, on the other hand, call many of their shows hits based on buzz. Such shows as “Nip/Tuck,” “Monk,” “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and “Trading Spaces” win Emmys and wind up on magazine covers. Their stars become household names and are watched by millions of passionate fans. Just not as many as watch most network shows.

That steams broadcasters.

“So few things genuinely are a hit these days that everyone has a tendency to try to call everything a hit,” said Jeffrey Zucker, president of NBC Universal Television Group, which this season must replace its biggest blockbuster, “Friends.”

“The fact is that things called a hit on cable are very often not qualified as cable hits and often get compared to network hits and that’s often very unfair to the network programs,” Mr. Zucker said. You’ve hit on one of my pet peeves,” said David Poltrack, executive VP for research and planning at CBS.

“People seem to be able to call shows hits, particularly when they’re on cable television, because the press doesn’t really have any idea as to what a hit is on cable television. They kind of buy anybody’s show’s a hit,” he said. “A hit movie is one that has a high box office, a hit play is one that fills the seats on Broadway. They’re not the ones that win critical acclaim, necessarily.”

The bar is still lower for cable than for broadcast, at least in terms of total viewers.

Take “Chappelle’s Show.” Mr. Zucker questioned why a show watched by relatively few viewers generates so much ink. But to Mr. Herzog, who just re-signed comedian Dave Chappelle to keep him on Comedy Central, the show’s a hit compared with a show like “Scrubs,” which gets much higher ratings on NBC. (Last season, “Chappelle” delivered an average of 923,000 18- to 49-year-old viewers over the 139 times it aired. “Scrubs” averaged 6.4 million viewers in the demo in 24 airings.)

“I actually like `Scrubs.’ I watch it,” Mr. Herzog said. “But it doesn’t have a lot of buzz and people don’t know who those guys are. Everybody knows who Dave Chappelle is, and everyone wants to talk about Dave Chappelle, even if they haven’t seen the show. More people may have seen `Scrubs,’ but have they sold a DVD of it?”

For his part, Mr. Zucker labels “Scrubs” “a success, but I don’t think we’ve called it a hit.”

In addition to the broad distribution of cable, VCRs, DVRs and DVDs have changed TV and the dimensions of a hit. Indeed, DVD sales alone would qualify HBO’s “The Sopranos” as a hit-and most TV executives agree the mob drama is a hit. “We’re in a new world of television, and some are trying to stay on top of it, and some are clinging to the old, and the definition of a hit is part of that,” said Tim Brooks, executive VP of research at Lifetime and a television historian.

Even within the broadcast realm, criteria for success vary.

To Mr. Poltrack of CBS, the definition of a hit starts with the 30 shows with the most total viewers.

Those would all be on broadcast. With cable, he said, one should look only at the top 10 “because the whole genre is relatively low-rated. If you define anything in the top 30 of cable as a hit, you’re getting into really marginal properties.” Even then, he said, the cable shows are still just “cable hits.”

Unlike Mr. Zucker, who looks at the world through 18 to 49 glasses, Mr. Poltrack says hits should be measured by total audience. Shows that are popular with certain demographics should be classified as hits within those groups.

Cable executives take a more flexible view of what’s a hit. They look at buzz, whether it improves their time slots and whether it improves their networks’ images.

“We’ve got 14 channels, so the bar is different on every channel,” said former CBS executive Billy Campbell, who is now president of Discovery Networks U.S. “American Chopper” and “Trading Spaces” are hits for his networks Discovery and TLC. “The Jeff Corwin Experience” is a hit for Discovery’s Animal Planet.

“The thing that separates us from the broadcasters predominantly is that it’s less about ratings and more about the brand,” said Mr. Campbell. “It’s very important to look at what the show does for our brand, what does it do for our relationship with our partners the cable operators, and really what does it do for our audience, who are very vocal and send us letters and e-mails and let us know much more aggressively and proactively what they think of our product.”

Cable’s Cumulative Hits

John Landgraf, president of entertainment at FX, says his network has three hits: “The Shield,” “Nip/Tuck” and “Rescue Me.” To him, a hit more than doubles the network’s overall prime-time rating. “That’s not to say we would absolutely cancel a show if it were good and critically acclaimed if it were a little bit under those benchmarks. But those are good rough benchmarks for us.”

FX tries to push those ratings closer to broadcast ratings with the way it schedules and sells. A new episode of a show like “Nip/Tuck” will air four times in a week. FX adds the ratings of those shows when it sells the cumulative rating to advertisers, who buy spots on each of the airings. The FX cume approaches the demographic rating of some top broadcast shows, said Bruce Lefkowitz, executive VP of sales for the Fox Entertainment Networks.

“When you guys in the press report a 2.5 or 3 rating, which by the way is really good for the premiere, it undersells the value of what the advertiser is getting,” Mr. Lefkowitz said.

Turner sells some of its big movies by cumeing three or four weekend airings to generate a rating that’s comparable to broadcast, and USA sells some of its shows and specials the same way.

Broadcasters are just experimenting with running first-run shows multiple times in a week, but Mr. Poltrack endorsed using cumulative ratings in his definition of a hit. “If a show runs four times a week and its cumulative audience is equal to a top 30 program rating, then it would be classified as a hit show. It doesn’t make a difference how many times you run it. But I don’t know any show that does that,” he said.

Some cable hits would never make it on broadcast because they employ a different approach in order to stand out amid today’s sea of channel options.

“Our shows operate on a very different mechanism that has to do with really layered, complicated character journeys,” Mr. Landgraf said. “It might hold down the audience,” but to attract dedicated viewers, FX needs to give them a compelling reason to look for it on the dial.

For that reason, cable shows can afford to aim at smaller, more specialized audiences and deal with more adult subject areas than broadcasters can. Of course, creating edgy shows may not be a good strategy for broadcasters.

“The press tends to focus on shows they think are sexy and edgy and often ask why the broadcast networks can’t program more cable-type shows. But copying cable programming often results in cable
-like ratings,” said Steve Sternberg, executive VP for research at Magna Global, a media buying company.

Mr. Sternberg compared the media interest in “The Shield” on FX to the lack of attention given to ABC’s “Line of Fire,” which he said was equally edgy and well-acted. “Line of Fire” was canceled after a few episodes after finishing third in its time period, despite attracting significantly more viewers than “The Shield.” “Had `Line of Fire’ premiered on FX and `The Shield’ been a midseason ABC series, their fates (and press buzz) would likely have been reversed,” he said.

As great as it is to have a hit, there’s often a hangover after the celebration. The license fees for successful shows can go through the roof, especially in broadcast. Networks can’t afford not to renew expensive shows like “ER,” but more modest programs might bring better economic results.

From a financial point of view, “a successful show is one that attracts a hit-level audience, but does so in a profitable manner,” CBS’s Mr. Poltrack said. He pointed to reality series “Big Brother” as an example of a show that has attracted a very salable 18 to 49 audience at a relatively low cost.

Hit shows are also worth their cost because they have a halo effect that brings additional viewers and advertisers to a network. Mr. Lefkowitz of FX said that when a network has a hit, advertisers usually are convinced to buy spots in other shows as well. “Not only do advertisers want to buy the other shows that are in the environment, but viewers come back as well,” he said.

Cable programmers can also run hit shows more often than broadcast networks do, with marathons and other stunts, allowing them to amortize their costs quickly, sometimes as soon as the second season.

With subscription revenue coming in, in addition to advertising revenue, cable programmers can afford to stick with new shows longer than broadcasters do.

“One of the reasons that the broadcasters don’t have a hit show these days is their quick hook and their reluctance, for a lot of good reasons, to experiment, to push the envelope, to break new ground,” said Mr. Brooks of Lifetime. “Creatives in Hollywood know that, and their really adventuresome projects, the ones that produce the breakthroughs, more and more of those go to cable networks, because they know that’s where they can do a show like `Rescue Me’ and they know it will get watered down beyond recognition if they go to a broadcast network.”

Often cable shows are built for a nichier audience, and obviously the content can be different when you’re programming for cable than it needs to be on a network,” Mr. Zucker said. Nevertheless, Mr. Zucker has moved shows like “Queer Eye” from NBC Universal-owned Bravo to NBC. And he said he might do more of that in the future.

On the other hand, a show that doesn’t work on broadcast can become a hit on cable. Mr. Herzog was at Fox when “Family Guy” was launched. “It was a good show, a funny show. Maybe it’s just on the wrong network,” he recalled thinking. It attracted young men, but Fox needed to attract a broader audience. Those same young men have made Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim a huge success and have persuaded Fox to give it another shot.

“Now it’s a cable hit and more importantly, it’s a DVD hit,” Mr. Herzog said. Will it work on Fox this time? “We’ll find out. When they put it on with new episodes, it will get another shake.”

While television executives search for hits and how to identify them, there’s little doubt about what constitutes failure.

“I think you know a flop when you see it,” Mr. Zucker said. “I think everyone has a different definition of a hit. It’s a lot easier to identify a flop than it is a hit.”