It’s a convenient truth: Success in our business means you’ve got the audience. The viewers are the ultimate arbiter of content. To meet their appetite, the networks, streamers, producers and distributors are all in the business of delivering programming that viewers will watch. The ratings tell the tale and bring in the revenue, subscribers or both. It can’t be any simpler, right? Right?
Of course, it’s not the end of the story. In the current media environment, being successful often means more than getting ratings, especially in the doc and factual world. We’re seeing the call for high-quality factual programming at both familiar outlets such as PBS, Netflix and Nat Geo as well as more entertainment-oriented networks such as TNT, MTV and Lifetime.
So, if it’s not always ratings, how do you determine what’s successful? I’ve tried to categorize the ways that I’ve witnessed industry leaders positioning their offerings in the marketplace, in addition to ratings or the size of viewership:
RETURN ON INVESTMENT (ROI): This is literally the bottom line: Factual programming — reality, documentary, unscripted — is often a way for a network or distributor to spend significantly less than scripted drama, movies or comedy and still attract an audience. Thus, it won’t need big ratings or viewership to make enough money to cover its cost. So, if you’re a program supplier of these kinds of shows, this is why you may feel short-changed when it comes to deal-making: You’re an ROI machine.
AWARDS: Who doesn’t want an Oscar, Emmy, Peabody or other prize? The competition has stepped up in recent years, with Oscar and Emmy campaigns for factual shows that rival big-ticket scripted movies. The value in the award wins is more than just a moment of triumph — it’s PR for all involved, bragging rights, morale boost, a symbol of quality, a marketing device, a reason to charge more for your next project, and a statue heavy enough to crack walnuts.
REVIEWS: A decent review in the New York Times or other major outlets gives a film or program visibility among opinion leaders. It also gives marketing a reason to crow (“The Hollywood Reporter calls it ‘superb!’”). Executives live for praise from the press (or what’s left of it), especially if ratings are mediocre. Also see…
MEDIA ATTENTION: You get a boost when your show is discussed or reported on media outlets other than your own. For instance, Lifetime’s recent R. Kelly documentary became a major news story. Obviously, positive attention is preferred over negative, which can also serve to sink a program that’s deemed too controversial (Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Kid Nation, Paula Deen).
BUZZ: This is the elusive quality that causes a TV series or film to reach viral status, apart from traditional marketing. A groundswell develops when social media is talking about your show. The phenomenon can result in big viewership (You) or a vocal fan base (Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, Love After Lockup).
IMPACT: Factual programs can try to reveal something new or important. In many cases, the result is more than just entertainment and the impact can be profound. For instance, TLC’s I Am Jazz brought transgender issues to a wider audience.
BRANDING: Some networks try hard to build their brand through programming — think Food, Nat Geo, Disney — as part of its overall appeal and making it an attractive environment for viewers, advertisers, and other producers. A consistent brand promise can also keep viewers returning often to get their fix (ID, HGTV), even if the ratings aren’t always stellar.
ATTRACTING OTHER SUPPLIERS: A newcomer to the marketplace or an existing network trying something new will commission loud or splashy programs as a signal to the creative community — “We’re open for business!” — often with stars or name-brand production talent. See Apple, Hulu, YouTube.
At a recent Realscreen Summit, a network CEO was asked point blank by a member of the audience, “Do ratings matter?” It may have been facetious, but this question never would have been asked if there wasn’t confusion in the industry about the aims of networks and streamers. The answer is — yes, ratings matter, but not always. And they especially matter when they’re lower than desired.
Michael Cascio is president and CEO of M&C Media LLC, where he advises selected media and production partners, and produces documentaries. He is also a guest speaker and writer, whose recent article for the Sunday New York Times revealed how his experience as a backstage janitor prepared him for a career in television. At National Geographic, A&E, Animal Planet, and MSNBC, Cascio has won four Emmys, two Oscar nominations and a “Producer of the Year” award.