This week, the cast of the NBC sitcom "Community" will grace the cover of TV Guide. The show just won the magazine's Fan Favorites Award after garnering hundreds of thousands of votes online. One place you won't be able to see "Community", however, is on the air.
On November 13, the peacock network released its fall midseason schedule, and as many ratings-savvy viewers had feared, their beloved "Community" wasn't on it.
The quirky, single-camera show followed the antics of seven misfits in a study group at a community college in the fictional town of Greendale, Colorado. Critics have almost universally hailed "Community" for its inventive writing and characters. Many episodes spoof a wide variety of movie genres and include dozens of rewarding inside jokes for the longtime viewer. In the latest installment of the series, the writers cleverly mirrored the documentary "Hearts of Darkness"—about Francis Ford Coppola's descent into madness while filming "Apocalypse Now"—with the school's dean growing increasingly insane as he tries to shoot a local commercial for the college. The show is far from perfect, but it's easily one of the most groundbreaking series I've seen on television.
Despite the show's critical acclaim and cult following online, viewership ratings for the current third season had floundered and NBC decided to put production on hold mid-season.
But just because it was pulled doesn't mean it's completely dead. NBC assures fans that the rest of the 22-episode order will be shot and aired before the end of next year. Producing partner Sony Pictures has also hinted strongly that it would like to see the show hit the four-season mark, when there will be enough episodes to sell "Community" in syndication to other networks.
But for now, the show remains in an uncomfortable limbo, where neither viewers nor the producers know when it will be coming back or if the network will give the show a proper sendoff—I remember watching bitterly as Fox dumped the last four episodes of "Arrested Development" into a two-hour block opposite the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics.
The response online has been frenzied, with many fans launching petitions, writing letters, and tweeting in support of the program. The pulling of "Community" along with the cancellation of cult favorites like "Arrested Development" (I'll believe the new season and movie when I see them), "Freaks and Geeks," and "Undeclared" has led many to ask if there is any place for an intelligent, well-written sitcom on primetime network television. Under the current system, I would say there is no place for such programming.
I blame the ratings system. The current ratings system does not accurately report the content being consumed. Yet it is still the yardstick for the success of any given show and determines what content airs on television.
Ratings rule network TV. Advertisers buy commercial time, which generates the lion's share of the revenue for free, non-premium cable channels. The cost of the ads is directly related to the number of people the ads are expected to reach in a certain time slot. Fewer people watching means less money; shows today are extremely expensive to produce, with costs ranging from $2 million to $10 million per episode. Networks are often forced to act quickly to cancel lagging shows or risk tens of millions of dollars in production costs. Paid cable stations are not nearly as dependent on advertising, in some cases not at all, and can afford to take more creative risks.
The industry gathers data every week in the form of ratings to gauge how many people are watching and thus how much they can charge for ad time. The standard is the Nielsen system, which, since the 1950s, has put set-top boxes in thousands of American homes to gather a sample of what the country is watching.
That worked fine for the past half-century, but media consumption has changed dramatically in the last several years.
TV isn't a young format anymore. To many in the 18-34 year-old demographic, watching a program live on a television set is almost as foreign as using a landline phone. We've come to expect our content on demand and commercial free.
Most now watch shows online either on the network's website or a subsidiary like Hulu, subscription services like Netflix, or some other semi-legal streaming site like Megavideo or Veoh. An increasing number of those who still use televisions have switched over to digital video recorders (DVRs), and will watch a recorded show days, weeks, or even months after the original airtime.
It's no longer as simple as checking the readouts of Nielsen boxes for a given half hour. Figuring out how many people are watching a show is a much more nebulous—if not impossible—task given the variety, unbounded timeframe, and lack of tracking on these new means of content consumption.
"Community" is an Internet darling. Each new episode generates countless gifs, memes, discussion boards, topics, and what have you on the web. People who participate this actively on the Internet are obviously more likely to get their television content on the Internet as well, thus bypassing the ratings system entirely and perpetuating "Community"'s poor weekly ratings performances on-air. People are watching; NBC just has no way to quantify it and profit from it.
Traditional television viewers—mainly older people and those without the means to adopt new technology—now have a hyper-inflated importance in the television market. CBS has held the top network spot for going on three years now by catering to an older demographic with tried and true—but much less groundbreaking—fare like "Two and a Half Men," "NCIS," "The Big Bang Theory," and every flavor of "CSI."
These shows have more accurate ratings, but the data remains drastically underreported for shows like "Community" that appeal to a younger, tech-savvy audience.
The audience for these types of shows is out there, and they are watching. The networks just need a way to work them into their business model. Television production is expensive, and to get the shows we want, we'll have to pay for them one way or another.
All the noble efforts to save "Community" won't address the problem that killed it in the first place. Intelligent television programming will continue to die out until the industry finds some way to follow the millions of viewers that have moved online.