4) Time-Shifting and Online Viewing
It’s become increasingly obvious over the last five years that fans of television don’t watch television any more. What in the world does that mean?! Sci-fi fans tend to be younger and technologically savvy, and so among the earliest adopters of new technology. We got DVRs first and stopped watching our favorite shows live. We were the first users of Hulu and iTunes, and sci-fi fans were torrenting new episodes illegally before most people even knew such a thing existed.
Nielsen Media Research and the networks have tried to keep up with the times, revamping the TV ratings system to include some time-shifted, DVR viewing in separate ratings reports. “Live + Same Day” counts those who recorded the show and watched it by 3 a.m. that night. “C3” numbers count those who watch recorded commercials within three days of broadcast. And “Live + 7 Days” measure viewers who recorded the episode and watched it at any time the following week. (Stargate typically adds 40 to 50 percent to its Friday night viewer numbers here.)
But those in the Nielsen sample group who took longer to catch up, or who watched online instead (legally or illegally), currently don’t get counted. And that’s to say nothing of the millions in other countries who watch on their own networks (or online).
Is it fair for Syfy to cancel the show when execs know that they can’t count all of its true viewers? Sure it is. Syfy’s bottom line is determined by how much it can charge advertisers for 30 seconds of air time during SGU. Can it make more money than it pays for the show? MGM owns Stargate and licenses it to Syfy — so Syfy doesn’t see a nickel from iTunes or Amazon or Hulu, or from DVDs or international distribution. As much as we talk about ratings on this site, we all need to remember that the renewal decision is not based on a show’s viewership — it’s based on how much money the network can make from the show. That means it’s based on Syfy Channel’s viewership, and heavily weighted toward those viewers most likely to not fast-forward through ads (“Live + Same Day” and “C3” ratings).
Simply put: DVR time-shifting and online availability are directly opposed to the current system of ad-supported television. New technologies are great for putting the viewer in control; but the broadcaster’s profitability is still tied to the network being in control (i.e., making us watch commercials).
5) Mid-Season Breaks
When your show is very episodic in nature, it doesn’t matter all that much when the individual installments air and how much space is inserted in between them. Any on-going storyline that loosely stitches the episodes together isn’t tough to catch up on. (E.g.: The Goa’uld are bad. We are fighting them. They are trying to take over the galaxy … but not every week.) But when your show is dependent on an arc, on following the intricate lines and more subtle character relationships from week to week, a big break in the middle can be disastrous for holding on to that mythological creature who sets the ratings curve and makes or breaks a show: the casual viewer.
SGU‘s mid-season breaks are four months long — slightly longer even than the 3-month break in between the seasons. Those two breaks have been disastrous. Many casual viewers appear to have given the new show its first 10-episode run to hook them, and didn’t come back four months later for “Space” — easily one of SGU‘s finest hours. More viewers were lost when the show not only took another long break between seasons, but changed nights.
ABC learned fairly early on from LOST that it couldn’t split up an arc-based, mythology-heavy series. Such series simply demand more from viewers (and SGU is such a show). ABC found that it had to hold off on a fall premiere and start the show at mid-season, airing the whole thing in one run. FOX did the same with 24. (That also means that the network and studio only have one big marketing push to worry about.) SGU, in my opinion, certainly suffered from Syfy not having done the same with Stargate Universe.
6) … Viewers Just Weren’t There
Everything I’ve talked about up to this point might rightly be called “mitigating factors.” They help to paint a fuller and more realistic picture of the difficulties faced by shows like Stargate Universe. But finally, in spite of the network’s programming strategies and the amount of marketing put into (or not put into) promoting a show, any television series must live or die by how many people are watching it. There are plenty of success stories on cable television this year. Most of the world isn’t watching television online yet; and so if a show generates good word-of-mouth and compels its audience to return week after week, it will survive.
People might lose track of a show they have enjoyed, especially when the network moves it to a different night and takes a 4-month break in the middle of the season. But, generally, they will find the shows that they love. Stargate Universe resonated with a lot of people, and brought in a lot of new viewers who never had any interest in Stargate before. But it wasn’t a mega-hit. Blame that on network scheduling, or on backlash from fans of the previous series, or on the failure of the ratings system to keep up with the way people watch television today. But these are things that can be overcome when a show is so good that it demands that people find it on the dial and tell all their friends.
SGU had 30 episodes to prove itself to casual viewers and build a strong audience, and it didn’t. Ratings nearly always fall off from a series premiere; but Universe‘s ratings continued to erode from start to finish. As much as the show had the deck stacked against it by Syfy’s programming strategies, like any series it had to live or die by how well it appealed to the casual viewer — how well it turned casual viewers into true fans.
I have no conclusions other than that. I’m not passing any judgment on the quality of the show (which was outstanding) or whether it should have been canceled. All I hope to do here is make some observations of those things that have led us here, particularly from the standpoint of the Syfy decision-makers. I liked the show and think it made big strides forward in the second half of the first season, and then again in the first half of the second. Many of the elements I found trying were starting to fall away — especially when Destiny‘s mission was revealed and characters once at odds began to work together.
The show is truly finding itself in its second season, and I have high hopes that the final 10 episodes this spring will bring us some of Stargate‘s finest hours. I know a third season would have been even better, and I’m sad to see it go.