Any other industry that had a product failure rate of 75% would be investigated by Congress, so I guess it’s safe to say that relying on traditional focus groups and studio head gut instincts hasn't worked out so well. So why not let "the people" decide?
On the surface, I suppose this sounds like a good idea. But I was reminded of a news story years ago, when one of the "secret" families chosen by an audience measurement service to track the shows they watched (and didn't) revealed that they often gamed the system by leaving the TV on during their favorite shows even though they were not even home to watch them. They wanted to make sure those shows in particular got renewed. The implication of the story was that other panel families were similarly abusing their "power."
Over the years I have adored certain TV series that drew small audiences, and much to my frustration, were eventually canceled. Would I have lied and cheated any system I could to keep those show on the air? You bet. So would you. We want what we want — and the rest of the TV audience can go watch Animal Planet or C-SPAN or the Hallmark Channel, or any of the other 300 or so channels I never watch.
If we have learned anything from the Internet, it’s that there is fraud in nearly every kind of crowd-based review system, from Amazon book reviews to Yelp restaurant comments, from TripAdvisor travel reviews to phony peer reviews in academic journals. So what makes us think that the "crowd" can be trusted to decide what we watch on TV?
Amazon just sued over 1,000 people writing five-star reviews about products they’d never even tried, who had allegedly plotted with product makers to subvert Amazon safeguards intended to bolster confidence in the Web site's reviews. So if someone is willing to commit fraud to bolster the reviews of a $10 book or a $5 bar of soap, surely there is an even bigger incentive to tinker with the fate of million-dollar-per-episode prime-time dramas.
There is a very long tail of parties impacted by decisions about what finally makes the line-up — from actors to key grips, from caterers to syndicators, from hairdressers to production houses. If was ever there was a recipe for fraud, this is it.
It's also a hell of a business model. "Youse wouldn't want nothing to happens to youse ratings, right? Our Web site needs some, whatayacallit, consideration. Else our disruptive technology might, youse knows, disrupt."
Sounds like you are referring to that early 1960s Congressional investigation of TV rating services, George. As I recall, one Nielsen home logged in something like 24 or 48 hours of continuous tuning to the same channel, but they weren't even home and may have done this to keep their dog or cat pacified.
As for the ways that the TV networks evaluate new show ideas, its really much more "scientific" than you give them credit for. Also, many primetime shows, which, in the good old days would be cancelled due to marginal or disappointing ratings, now get renewals because the networks are profit partners with their producers and more episodes mean more profits, later, in the syndication market. Finally, because they bundle all of their shows into "packages", rather than allowing advertisers to pick exactly which shows they choose to buy time in, the networks, barring a disastrous, across the board collapse in the Nielsens, are able to make what profits they garner from those flop shows as well as their few hits.