What counts as a 'hit' TV show these days? Don't worry - even the experts have no idea

By Emily Yahr

Jaimie Alexander stars in the TV show, Blindspot.
Jaimie Alexander stars in the TV show, Blindspot.

Defining a "hit" TV show used to be so easy: Just look at the ratings!

Not so much these days. With hundreds of series available, it's impossible to figure out. NBC's Blindspot was the most-watched new show of the fall. But everyone is talking about Netflix's Making a Murderer, so how does that compare, especially since Netflix won't release numbers? And CW's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend gets low ratings, but its star just won a Golden Globe and critics love it, so does that qualify as a success anyway?

Steven Avery is the subject of the Netflix TV show, Making A Murderer.
Steven Avery is the subject of the Netflix TV show, Making A Murderer.

The honest answer: We have no idea. However, we felt better after attending this week's RealScreen Summit, an annual conference for reality TV and non-fiction producers in Washington. Because it turns out that TV executives are struggling with the same questions.

Things have changed quite drastically in the last several years, one panel of experts said. Don Robert, senior vice president of research at A&E, said there are no longer panicked phone calls at 4 p.m. every day when the cable ratings come in - after all, the overnight viewer numbers are not the "end-all, be-all that they used to be."

Still, they're important. Though overnight numbers don't count the total audience that will be factored in with DVR and on-demand or who will stream the show on their iPad, execs can still reliably project what an audience will be overall. The notable - and crucial - piece of information not available in numerical data? "What you can't tell is how passionate people are," Robert said.

Ah, passion - the elusive element of TV that networks are still trying to turn into a profit. Research departments try: They can look at tweets, or Facebook posts, or measure exactly how many minutes someone watches a program. For example, Robert found shows like AMC's The Walking Dead, Doctor Who and Bad Girls Club (really) all have a very high percentage of minutes viewed, around 80 percent. That means viewers are more invested, which networks and advertisers love.

A seen from the TV show, The Walking Dead.
A seen from the TV show, The Walking Dead.

At the same time, shows that don't as high of a percentage of minutes viewed (HGTV's House Hunters, E!'s Royals, which Robert says rank in the mid-50 percent) can also be valuable, because they do well in repeats - also important to advertisers.

Shows can also prove their worth in other ways. Keith Friedenberg, an executive vice president at the WME/IMG agency, used the example of Keeping Up With the Kardashians. The reality franchise makes up a third of E!'s schedule. Even if it doesn't get as many viewers as E! would like, the network still deems it as a smash - because success can be measured in other ways, like spin-offs (FYI's recently-launched Kocktails With Khloe) along with Kim Kardashian's game app and endorsement deals. As the saying goes in Hollywood, Freidenberg said, you would "rather be No. 2 and make money than No. 1 and lose money."

Khloe Kardashian participates in the panel for Kocktails with Khloe. Photo / AP
Khloe Kardashian participates in the panel for Kocktails with Khloe. Photo / AP

Still, Freidenberg pointed out that "TV is the mothership" - if the show does well, then that supercharges everything else. After all, Rachael Ray might not have hit cookbooks or hot-selling cookware if she didn't have fans of her TV show.

That point, despite all the different ways networks are scrambling to call their shows "hits," is that TV is still the ideal way to gain fame. Kelly Abcarian, a senior vice president at Nielsen, noted that despite what you may have read, TV audience viewership is at an all-time high.

"The glamorous headline is that TV is dead because that's what everyone wants to write about," she said. "When you look at it, TV is far from dead ... no other medium (has) that demographic reach across all audiences."

- Washington Post

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