What the Winter TCA’s and Birth of a Nation Revealed About Netflix and the Future of Television

To say that NBC’s Television Critics Association winter panel kicked up some dirt between the standard and digital TV giants would be a gross understatement.

A debate that had largely remained behind closed doors punched its way to the forefront of conversation during several network presentations last month. The first blow came from NBC Universal’s president of research and media development. Alan Wurtzel showed ad buyers and critics performance data about Netflix—data that the digital programmer has remained elusive about, since it started producing its own original series.

Based on research conducted by the San Francisco tech firm Symphony Advanced Media, NBC uncovered that Netflix’s ratings weren’t out-performing broadcast like many had assumed. Using automatic content recognition (ACR) software built-in to a mobile app, Symphony was able to track viewing habits of the study’s participants. The firm collected the data between September and December of 2015, focusing on the 35-day period following a series premiere.

What the data revealed was interesting, especially when Wurtzel began comparing it to broadcast’s performance. Marvel’s Jessica Jones came out on top as Netflix’s highest rated new series, garnering 4.8 million viewers in the golden ad rate demographic of 18-49 adults. That puts it in the same league as one of broadcast TV’s best performing dramas, ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder. Meanwhile, critical darling Orange is the New Black, which premiered back in June, pulled in around 644,000 viewers. Those viewership numbers mimic that of HBO’s acclaimed comedy Girls. In summation: Netflix was on par with its traditional TV competitors.

NBC Universal’s TCA stunt was a clever move in a heated game of financial and marketing chess. Wurtzel had done the impossible, turning Netflix’s seemingly untraceable ratings into tangible figures. Unsurprisingly, Netflix President Ted Sarandos shot back during the online streamer’s own winter TCA panel. Sarandos flippantly dismissed Wurtzel’s claims, stating, “We may build a show for 2 million people. We may build a show for 30 million people,” but “ratings have no specific impact on [Netflix’s] business.”

The argument seeped its way into other network presentations, forcing industry power players to address the issue head on. While it was exciting to watch in real-time, what the debacle revealed will have more than momentary impact. To understand why any network would collect viewership data for another, or why a digital network would argue for its validity alongside traditional programming, it helps if you’re familiar with the predicament television has found itself in.

According to Nielsen Company ratings, “TV the way God intended,” as Wurtzel calls it, is dying. As new technologies like digital video recorders, mobile apps, online torrenting, and next day streaming sites have rapidly expanded, cable and broadcast ratings have taken a beating. Oddly (or ironically) enough, the industry embraced several of these “threats” when they emerged into the larger TV landscape. In an effort to make television more accessible, it may have made itself nearly obsolete.

One of the best examples of this is The CW. Formally a member of the “Big Five” (now four) broadcasters, the decade-old network’s rapid decline mimicked that of its predecessors: The WB and UPN. Owned by Warner Bros. Studios and CBS Studios respectively, both networks were struggling to stay watched in American households. In an effort to save themselves, the two performed their own version of a Steven Universe gem fusion. The result was one super network, overseen by (former) President Dawn Ostroff, aimed at ensnaring the attention, praise and viewership of TV’s 18-34 demographic.

In an alarmingly short period of time, both studios had once again found themselves in the same predicament. Their premise was television at the forefront of an evolving industry. Online, in hands, on the go. It was TV to talk about… except no one was talking about it. After half a decade of Ostroff at the network’s helm, she moved on and the network’s current president, Mark Pedowitz, took over. In a year, he seemingly changed the entire direction of The CW through greenlighting a more diverse slate of content.

Unfortunately, Pedowitz’s praise may have been premature. While the shows are geared towards a wider audience, the network is still drowning. Its highest rated series is The Flash, which is averaging a 1.4 in the demo. Translated, that’s 1.4% of the over 125,000,000 adults in the 18-49 viewer demographic. The second highest? Arrow with a 1.0. The CW’s two Golden Globe winnersJane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend bring in around 0.3 in the demo and 1 million viewers weekly. To put it nicely, the network isn’t even really a small threat.

The full article first appeared in Paste Magazine on Feb. 28, 2016.

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