May 22, 2018

Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Network TV, and the Cord Cutting Myth

Last week, the television show “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” was cancelled by Fox. Immediately, people were mad online. Hordes of outraged viewers took to social media to rage against the network for canceling this seemingly popular television show. That’s the problem, though. This show wasn’t popular, at least not in any economically viable way.

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Its cancellation does, however, shine a light on the realities of network television and the place of live television in our culture. See, the reality is that not very many people were actually watching “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” The show was drawing, on average, a meager 1.76 million viewers per episode during its latest season, down from 2.11 million viewers the previous season. And yet, people everywhere were flabbergasted that Fox had the audacity to cancel the show.

Sure, 1.7 million people is not insignificant, but let’s have some context here. “Young Sheldon” on CBS regularly has over 11 million viewers. “Hawaii 5-0” does 7 million plus.

So let’s not pretend that “B99” was some universally beloved ratings smash. It did not have (and still won’t have at NBC) broad watercooler-type appeal. “This is Us” or “Big Bang Theory” it was not.

Business-wise, it’s hard to argue with the decision to cancel the show. Network television depends on two things: 1) Ad revenue and 2) Most Americans watching crappy shows live. From the start, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” was a tough sell given these parameters. From a network perspective, you’re better off putting together an artistically bankrupt (but financially successful) reboot that pops a rating. You can charge through the nose ad-wise for that. “Roseanne,” for instance, debuted to a strong 5.1 rating (18 million plus viewers). You know what ABC is charging for a 30 second ad to run during “Roseanne”? $175,000 per 30 second ad. That’s some serious money right there.

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If you can’t have a crazy successful reboot, the option for these networks is to have a live event that draws eyeballs like moths to a flame. In other words, a singing show or the NFL. “American Idol” and “The Voice” both regularly pull in over 8 million live viewers, enabling them to charge upwards of $200,000 per 30 second ad. The NFL, meanwhile, destroys all other viewing options, with NBC charging over $700,000 for its Sunday night game. Fox, which cancelled “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” takes over the Thursday night slate for this upcoming season and will be able to charge over $500,000 per ad.

Why the high ad prices for “Roseanne,” “The Voice,” and the NFL? Obviously, it’s the ratings, silly. But the ratings (and, thus, the ad revenue) is driven by how these shows are consumed: By audiences watching live television. Not DVR’d. Not streaming or binged. But good ol’ live TV.

Isn’t live television is a thing of the past, though? After all, it’s so archaic and passé. And yet, that’s just simply not true. Once again, people (I’m looking at you, millennials) seem to have made the mistake of extrapolating what happens in their social circle echo chamber to the general population.

In reality, neutral source statistics show that live TV comprises of 84% of total television viewing time. For every hour spent streaming video, people watch more than five hours of live television. If you find yourself surprised by those statistics, you’re probably not alone. You’re also probably not “normal,” in your viewing habits.

Most people are not only watching Netflix or Hulu or whatever other Over-The-Top service you want to list here. Most people are in their forties and fifties with kids, a low-to-decent paying job, a 30 minute commute, and a simple desire to get home and turn the television on and their brain off. In reality, most Americans spend the majority of their time watching live TV and listening to AM/FM radio (insert your own political observations here).

If people do have an OTT service, it’s usually in conjunction with a cable or satellite package. Only 15% of households are “streaming only.”

Yes, cord cutting is a thing. People are certainly doing it. Consumer habits are changing. But is it happening at a rate that will cripple the television industry in a year or two? 2017 saw a 3.4% drop in the total number of pay tv subscribers. That’s not insignificant, but it’s a trickle. A drop in the bucket for an industry that still has 86 million pay tv subscribers. The days of 300 channel packages are basically dead and gone, but cable and satellite still has incredible reach and market penetration.

Are all of these viewers “old” viewers hanging on to a relic of the past? No, but that is happening. The number of pay TV viewers age 55 and older is expected to grow between now and 2021. Millennials surely have starkly different viewing habits, right? Maybe not. Turns out, in a typical month, the average millennial spends more time watching traditional TV than video on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Netflix, Twitch, Hulu, Amazon, Twitter, and Snapchat–combined.

This is contrary to popular opinion. But, if we’ve learned anything in the past few years, it has to be that popular opinion, while popular, is often wrong. That’s no different here. In short, people have some drastically flawed ideas of how television is consumed in today’s society.

So how does “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” fit into all of this? People (including the target demographic for “B99”) are still watching television, including live television. The show did not die because no one watched it. It’s simply because no one watched it live, and that’s where network shows make their money. The show’s fans simply have no one to blame for the cancellation but themselves. If you want a network show to stick around, you need to watch it live.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine will be in a slightly better position to succeed on NBC, but not because of anything to do with the actual show. Fox doesn’t have a single show among the Nielson Top 10. NBC at least has “The Voice” (their only current Top 10 show) and “This is Us” that they could use to help drive viewers to “B99.” But no one should be expect a niche show like “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” to suddenly develop any more than a cult following. If the show doesn’t gain significantly more live viewers, it’ll be the lowest rated show on the network primetime slate and in the same position it was with Fox.

Ultimately, this is less about one show than it is about what shows work where. Despite being picked up by NBC, a show like Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a sort of oddity on network television, which could certainly be considered part of its appeal. Network TV is always going to have slots to fill, and it can’t be all football, singing shows, or other events that demand live viewing. However, if you’re not going to fall into those categories, be prepared to be perpetually on the brink of cancelation.

In truth, the show would have probably been better off on a Netflix or Hulu, along with all the other shows that only a few people (relatively speaking) actually watch. These streaming-only services, since they’re largely not beholden to advertisers, can throw money at these “passion project” type of shows that don’t produce enough revenue to justify their existence. Netflix, with it’s ever-increasing subscriptions (up to 104 million worldwide), has enough clout to spend wildly. Even that, though, is slightly problematic, as Netflix has accumulated over $20 billion in long-term debt, betting that they’ll eventually be able to spend their way out of debt through the creation of original content.

All told, the television industry is both stronger as a whole and more individually unstable than most give it credit for. The Big Four networks, in an effort to coexist with new on-demand viewing options have prioritized shows that demand a live audience. In some ways, it should be a surprise that “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” was ever on a major network in the first place. It simply doesn’t fit the criteria for a hit show.

Remember, this is about “most people.” The “Roseanne” middle class. The viewers in cities that pull the highest ratings for football games. The people that want to turn on, tune in, and drop out. Maybe not full blown Hillbilly Elegybut close. The story of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is only one example from an industry that, for all its changes, still comes down to the same two old fashioned things that it always has: Live television and the almighty dollar.

Jason Mitchell
Jason Mitchell 29 Articles
Staff Writer

Jason grew up in Iowa but couldn't bring himself to like Iowa or Iowa State. Instead, he married a Cornhusker. Jason has taught junior high, high school, and college English but is now a stay-at-home dad to four kids. He also has an encyclopedic knowledge of reality shows and 1990s professional wrestling.

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