Do Networks Ignore Sci Fi Fans?

Published 7 years ago by

nielsen weblogo Do Networks Ignore Sci Fi Fans?Have you ever wondered why some TV shows are canceled due to supposedly low ratings when it seems like they have a strong following? Sometimes there are obvious reasons – like when CBS scheduled Jericho up against Fox’s American Idol, or Journeyman possibly being a victim of bad timing with the writers’ strike and too many reality show hitting the networks.

One of the systems that has the biggest impact on what we get to watch on television is called the Nielsen Ratings. It was founded by Arthur Nielsen in 1923 and through statistical sampling measurements, extrapolates what audiences are watching across the country. This information is important to advertisers who pay dearly for much coveted time slots in which they know the audience is watching.

Neilsen Ratings measure what programs selected “families” actually sit down to watch. This tells me that networks tend to rely on the black and white data, and do not consider what the “unnoticed” audience watches. Neilsen families are the ones who made shows like 60 Minutes, Seinfeld, ER, Survivor, CSI & American Idol the top rated shows in their respective time slots. I’m no expert, but this sounds like the folks that enjoy these shows may not be sci fi fans. Sci fi is a smaller niche, but fans of sci fi shows tend to be extremely loyal and dedicated to a series.

A case in point is an impromptu survey I came across on They had a list of shows that have been canceled recently and asked readers for their thoughts.

Of eight canceled shows, the readership wanted 4 of them back.

The survey said they should leave Bionic Woman dead. (Imagine that… ask Vic, he’ll tell ya about that wonderful, plotless show.) They also thought that Cavemen should remain dead. Oh Lordy, not just leave it – bury it and delete all the media it’s recorded on. Leave the cavemen to the Geico commercials, which really are very funny and have even themselves taken a pot shot at the now canceled series.

Among the shows they wanted brought back was one of my newest addictions: Friday Night Lights. A gritty series focusing on a rural town’s high school football team and the challenges that teams teens face.. One of the other shows they wanted to see return is Journeyman. (Ah, there is some sanity out there and Vic is not alone.)

Knowing a TV series’ demographics has it’s merit, but Nielsen’s “sampling methods” have been (rightly) criticized since the selected families know who they are, defeating the premise of double blind testing. Neilsen ratings also refuse to count recorded programming for later viewing as part of its sampling methods. This used to apply to VCRs (remember those?) but now includes Digital Recording Devices like Tivo. This does make some sense, since we skip commercials watching recorded shows, but it could spur advertisers to think of more creative ways to put ads in front of viewers while the show is on.

I’m optimistically pessimistic that someday statistics from a more thorough random sampling of the viewership will happen and network execs might just use their gut feelings about shows.

Until then, it may be some time before the studios recognize that they are missing an important segment of the population: the sci fi appreciating fan.

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  1. Of course scifi fans get ignored. If they didn’t then shows like Battlestar Galactica would be on regular network television. I’m not sure when it started, but SciFi has been getting a bad rap perhaps since Misfits of Science. Journeyman is a brilliant show that for whatever reason the studios failed to give it a decent chance. The rating were not horrible, at least by NBC standards of late, but it could have been better with an improved timeslot. I guess we’ll just have to accept the stigma of being out of touch nerds and continue to enjoy our entertainment elsewhere.

  2. Could it be a case where sci-fi/genre fans are often more tech-savvy and therefore download more or buy full season DVDs? If this is the case, they wouldn’t really be registering highly in ratings?

    I remember ‘Star Trek: TNG’, ‘DS9′ and ‘Voyager’ used to screen late at night, rarely for more than a few months at a time and almost always a few seasons late here in Australia… yet I know plenty of Trekkies who splurged on the VHS releases (always in plentiful supply at Target) and then on the DVDs. So there’s obviously an audience there.

    Then again… it could be argued that sci-fi fans (and fanboys in general) are a far smaller demographic than they (we) think. In spite of what a weekend at ComicCon (or a few minutes online) might suggest, I’d hedge a bet that the number of sci-fi fans out there doesn’t come anywhere near the number of people tuning into ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ or ’24′.

    It’s why studios often overlook ‘the fans’ when making movies like ‘Transformers’ or any superhero flick. We just refuse to believe it.

  3. I’m all for Journeyman coming back. I think they got much better as they went along and the show had strong potential to continue.

  4. Just like everything Neilsen
    ratings will eventually adapt and use input from Tivo and cable subscriptions.
    They will do it because it will be cheaper and more acurate…
    Its just a matter of time before were all Borg.

  5. I think Networks ignore Sci-Fi shows, not just fans. Cable channels have made hits from shows like The 4400, The Dead Zone, and Smallville. The big networks just don’t give shows like these time to find an audience before they pull the plug. Remember how FOX screwed up Firefly a few years back? They moved it around and even changed the order of the episodes. A series can’t succeed if it doesn’t have its own network’s support.

  6. Part of the reason sci-fi shows get cancelled is not because they are not successful but because you can make a different show which is just AS successful for less money. Reality TV, basically, is a better return on investment than effects-laden sci-fi.

    It’s logical from a money-men perspective.

  7. Joel Fagan Reality tv is awful just the idea that these people know a camera is on them destroys the idea of the word reality.I don’t watch none of them.Yes the sci fi channel and mythbusters rule on my tv.So I must be one of those minorities the nelson ratings ignore.I loved Journeyman project and was disappointed when it was canceled.If they keep bringing on very stupid showslike the oxymoron “REALITY TV” on tv such as “dancing with the stars”(I would rather have my teeth pulled than watch that crap)or “amucking race”,or “big brother” I will just quit watching tv all together.

  8. I am a Nielson Family and use my DVR and it is recorded what I watch live and on DVR. I’m a huge sci fi fan and hope my viewing choices can help!

  9. I had to laugh at the young-uns who said maybe it was due to sci-fi fans being the type to download DVDs…

    Sci-Fi’s have always been screwed by the networks. Go back to the history of Star Trek (the original), which was almost prevented from airing because the script had a woman as the second in command. The show also weaved parables highlighting the foolishness of war, racism, and the Cold War into the general plots.

    Sci-Fi shows tend to sneak in subversive, non-mainstream ideas and that always makes media executives nervous. Critical thinking leads to questioning authority, and ‘sedition’.

    It’s not a coincidence that US defense companies like Westinghouse and General Electric thought it prudent to purchase major US networks.

    But back to the point – yes, Neilson’s ratings is social engineering and the dumbing down of America.

    But that doesn’t explain why shows like Farscape were cancelled… sci-fi shows are just plain EXPENSIVE compared to idiots doing karaoke under a spotlight.

  10. Go read Joe S. production notes on how fricken hard it was to get Babylon-5 made. It boils down to keeping people’s attention and building viewership.

    Another problem is that TV tends to fall into easy to understand story / plots. Think of the Wander-who-does-good-deeds. Touch by an Angle and Knight Rider where identical shows in this respect. You must have your heroes and villains identifiable by their archetypes so anybody with in the first 5 minutes of watching a show can figure out who everyone is and where they stand.

    Then there is the Deus ex machina problem. Every show must be neatly tied up at the end of the 43 minutes; and too often technobable is the rescue.

    Finally, it’s damn expensive and not a sure sell.

  11. Grr, I’m still steaming about the cancellation of Firefly! That’s one of the best SciFi shows eva! I guess the fat “meeting goers” at the stations thought that since their tastes in TV sucked, Firefly must not be doing good and it’s safe to mess with the schedule over a stupid football game. RRRRRRRRRRRR!

  12. Dead Like Me was a favorite of mine, I can only re-watch the cancelled show{s) via Netflix, ditto for Firefly and their one-off offspring: Serenity. Less brutish than many other more violent (thus ‘simpler’) popular successes in the sci-fi genre, they actually they had too much humanity to succeed in a big way, particularly now. We love war too much, we’re war mongers and will push it until all other options are crushed. We bathe in violence.. to others, not so much in it’s eventual karmic kickback tho’. We’re too busy dumbing down because it’s easy, specially if you’re mentally impaired. Idiocracy is the point.

  13. I so agree- My favorite show Dresden Files was ripped off the air even though it had a large loyal following. I am still fighting for the show every single day and I have never done that, ever, for any show.

  14. Yet “Survivor” and “Big Brother” continue to assault us year after year after year….


  15. You are mistaken on one important point… All of the new markets run by Nielsen measure and count time shifted viewing in their ratings. Older markets which only counted a households viewing and live broadcasts are being switched to newer equipment which measures each individual’s viewing.

    Don’t rely on only wikipedia for your sources.

  16. Joe is right though, it is a lot cheaper to keep cranking out Survivor and Big Brother than it is to produce something like Firefly or Journeyman. It’s about putting out the least amount of money and getting the max return. Fan loyalty does not figure into it. Sci-fi fans may be the most loyal, but are not as much of an influence as they would like.

  17. Sci-Fi inspires a ardent, well-educated following that is always be better serviced on cable. Cable allows for more risks and subversive storylines.

    But pitching Sci-Fi is always the most difficult of the genres. Most executives are not fans of sci-fi; they find the concepts too “heady” and the productions too expensive.

  18. Bruce: Yes, I’m hoping that the Sci-Fi channel takes a turn for the better. Ultimately, I hope that other channels like HBO, Showtime or even A@E produce science fiction. I’d like to see Sci-Fi treated with the same sophistication as Madmen or The Wire.

  19. There is a website trying to get Nielsen to change their methodology to a better, more accurate ratings system.

    Its called and while it focuses on the US Born Latino market underrepresentation in their current system (U.S. born Latinos have a median age of 18 and MANY are Sci Fi fanatics) it is also a way to get them to become more accountable for all of their ratings services.

    Since Nielsen is a virtual monopoly, sites like and this blog are necessary for change. It won’t happen any other way.

  20. TiVo data is already used by Nielsen for ratings. They’ve been using them for a few years now. Every TiVo collects and submits data to be used as a Nielsen household. Here’s an article from 2004:

    Also, TiVo is now giving data directly to the studios, providing second-by-second breakdowns on viewer numbers and activity. This started in January of last year,

  21. Good points to all, with your different perspectives on the issue.

    Sean Hood: I agree that Sci-Fi gets serviced better on cable, but when on-the-fence fans get exposed to the Sci Fi Channel, sometimes, it’s not the best representation of Sci-Fi if they come across the Saturday night B movies they spam the air with, though on a rare occasion they tend to surprise me.

    Maybe with the new chief at the helm

    things may change! Thanks for writing.

  22. C3 Ratings are being use more to cover the use of DVRs. This is the commercial ratings. It basically shows if the show is retaining viewers through the commercials.

    As much as I agree with the view of this article, I believe the author is not well informed nor tuned in to how tv works.

    Start looking at the non-broadcast networks and you’ll start to see where tv is heading. USA, TNT and FX are prime examples.

  23. Scooter you made some good points.
    Farscape was cancelled because it was too expensive and Sci-fi channel had to decide between Stargate SG1 and Farscape.

  24. Firefly_Monkey I heard that the (meeting goers) did have it in for Firefly. Some of them were upset the way Josh left Buffy to work on it.
    John Doe, could you just not watch ANY reality shows and of course all reruns of LEXX. Thanks so much!!

  25. Hey Sp`ange – All I do know about TV is that ads that bring in $$ help fund the shows we watch, or they fade. To me, that’s the bottom line and it’s kind of scary if you think about some of the ads that are out there.

    It confounds me that some Sci-Fi shows can have entertaining character development, seem to be well written to account for story details, but thematically does not seem to catch on with the general populace. Look at Lost… compelling in the curiosity department, gritty survival on island story, but yet we have unexplained phenoms like wispy black smoke that kills people and invisible dinosaurs. (The moment they explain that black smoke thing, I’m outta there!)

    If I were a Nielsen household, I’d probably screw up the ratings too.. I tend to tape the stuff I really like to watch later, and leave the drabble on the tube that I am curious about, while I write.

    If they monitored TiVo, and I were a TiVo user, then things would be different. That doesn’t even count the shows I go catch online, but then, you can’t ff through the commercials on those outlets, so they should be counted.. right? Are they counted in ratings counts?

    I have more questions as I read more comments, and thanks to everyone who’s pitching in their thoughts and opinions.

    Regards – Bruce

  26. I think this article is bunk. Why? Not all Nielson houses are the standard Idol-watching families. I don’t do Idol, CSI, ‘reality” shows or Seinfeld. I like Scifi. Not all of it, but I trend to like it, at least give it a chance. I also watch some primetime big shows that I enjoy that are more standard family shows. (No, I’m not going to sit on SciFi channel 24/7) I’m not who you say decides our show success for us, yet I have had an opportunity to be a Nielson house before. Not married, no kids, just me. I don’t know how many others like me are in the mix at any time, but there are some. As there are more standard families than there are geeks like us, then the statistics may say that that the majority of viewers like Idol and other stuff we think is crap. But that’s what this is there to discover, in order to maximize advertizer effectivness. If you want to toss in a wrench, give unfair preference to geek minority over the mass public, then you want to corrupt the system and make it not do what it’s intended to do, and at that point why bother at all?

  27. Reality TV started with MTV’s real world (yes, I’m ignoring COPS and let me explain why…).

    TV execs believe the modern viewing public want touchy-feely TV where people sit around and talk about how they feel and stuff that Joe and Jane “EVERYVIEWER” can relate to. So, what’s easier to relate to? people talking about the “next hook up/last break up” or a big honking spaceship that doesn’t care about you or your mama? It’s all about what the viewer can RELATE to.

    SciFi is excellent escape, but it will always be relegated to the big screen where it thrives with a nice budget and doesn’t get cancelled half way through watching it.The theatre will exist to fill the so-called niche audiences. What are the biggest movie franchises out there? Star Wars and Star Trek. Other big movies? Horror films, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Friday the 13th. How many weekly horror shows are there? Other big films? The Ten Commandments. How many regular religious series are there on TV?

    It’s got to be a cheap and easy buck with the high return. TV is the way for reality. The Cinema will have to satisfy everyone else. Therefore, I propose TV will always SUCK unless you enjoy the NFL, College Football/Basketball, MLB and the occasional NBA game. Which I do. After all that, it’s the Simpsons…

  28. This reality crap kinda all started with the cable show Eco Challenge that morphed (like a Decepticon) into Survivor…
    I actually did some work on that show (beg forgiveness) and I’ll tell ya they filmed that entire show and got back to the states and had no idea what to do.
    Some editor brought in some lame ass congo music,the other 12 editors said “ya sounds good” and they just threw that crap show together…
    Next thing its BIGGEST thing on tv. Shows like Survivor and Idol are way cheaper than your average Stargate episode.
    Its quantity NOT quality anymore. Randy Reefer knows what I’m talking bout.

  29. Well put Zipper. So we drop are cable bill, and use those bucks where it counts, the theater! OK, so maybe not, but we can dream…

    Hey! You left off NASCAR!