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 TVGuide.com. 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.