More Than Ratings: The Unlikely Survival of Low-Rated Shows

Each year, the renewal season comes and many of your favourite shows get weighed and judged: renewed or consigned to the graveyard of cancelled shows that will only be heard from again when the dedicated take to the internet to reminisce. The fates of these shows are often hard to fathom – sure the ratings are public information but networks don’t like to publicise their decision-making rationale and it’s not just ratings that count; demographic, cost of production and yes, vocal fan support, all play a part. Of course any network still has all those hours to fill with programming and there are only so many reality documentaries the public will stand.

This year the two series that seemed to garner the most attention were the unlikely survival of Fringe and Community. Both have been struggling badly for ratings and both have dedicated followers determined to keep attention on them to keep them being made. Personally, I’m a big fan of both, so it was lovely to be able to look forward to more next year. But here’s the thing – how do these shows survive, if no-one is watching?

FringeLet’s start with Fringe. No, actually let’s start with the great breakout hit of genre television – Lost. It’s become cool to be mean about Lost now that it’s over, and I’ve always felt it’s had an uncomfortable relationship with elements of geek culture due to it being, y’know, kind of mainstream and popular, and it’s habit of co-opting very geeky concepts without properly exploring them in favour of more episodes about Kate being whiney and pointless. But it was a very successful show that spawned countless attempts to replicate its winning formula, of which Fringe is pretty much the last show standing.

Heavily marketed as mix of Lost and that other great cross-over show The X-Files, Fringe ended its first (and in my view, creatively weakest) series with a pretty respectable 9.2 million viewers in the US and was a shoe-in for renewal. This may be a long way shy of Lost’s season One figures of a staggering 20.7 million (and is actually lower than Lost’s lowest season finale figure!), but certainly nothing to be sniffed at. This is the high-water mark for the series and by the time season four’s finale aired the viewership was down to a mere 3.11 million, with viewership having pretty much flat-lined since the start of season three. Fox have even gone so far as to admit that the show loses them money to air on an episode-by-episode basis.

What is most interesting about this ratings figure is that the great lost dream of geekdom, Joss Whedon’s Firefly, was cancelled by the same network with an average viewership of 4.48 million.

So what has changed?

FireflyWell for one thing the nature of the industry has changed. Subscription cable channels are making inroads into the viewership of the mainstream channels like Fox and NBC, fragmenting further an already fragmented audience. Time-shifting means that “first run” statistics no longer always give a good picture of what is going on and the powerful “Nielsen” ratings are struggling to keep up with the times.

Cable operators particularly can make more money off fewer viewers, whilst producing quality product – fewer people watched the first season of Game of Thrones on HBO than watched the fourth series of Fringe but no-one is going to accuse it of struggling for viewers, nor making a loss. Why? Because it’s on cable – and the cable business model means that many people will subscribe just to watch Game of Thrones, and many of the same people will then buy it on Blu-Ray and effectively subsidize them making shows people aren’t watching in droves like Treme.

But Fringe doesn’t have that sort of revenue stream; it relies on the advertising revenue generated by the network, not peoples’ subscriptions. Advertisers’ value loyalty, not just numbers – a show which has a specific audience is valuable because an advertiser can buy time in an ad break having a fair idea what sort of demographic will be watching the show. They buy the slots and the network makes money. It can also make money from DVD sales, as Firefly showed, enough money to take a punt on a film, at least, and finally if the show can produce enough episodes to be sold downstream into syndication, there can be money from that too.

CommunityCommunity is in a pretty similar state – a show with a small but vocal fan-base which came in at a pretty appalling 2.5 million viewers at the end of its third season, a figure probably not helped by the network sticking it on hiatus for the early part of the year. Another show in the shadow a larger show that probably helped it get made, Community pales in comparison to the growing figures that The Big Bang Theory gets (averaging 13 million for its fifth season) and if the network expected anything on that sort of scale they must be crushingly disappointed. But, like Fringe, Community has been renewed. Unlike the one-last-hurrah final season of Fringe, Community could even live to fight another day beyond that.

It’s not all good news and rosy futures though. Fringe survives, but is getting a 13-episode half-season in order to wrap everything up it wants to and then make sure the house is clean and tidy for the next occupants. Community’s renewal seems to have come at the price of its creator and show runner Dan Harmon’s head on a spike, a cost that makes it unclear what the networks vision of a surviving Community actually looks like. I mean, why squeeze the guy out if the show has no long-term future anyway? But then, why renew it without him, given that he’s most likely one the key reasons it’s prominent enough to be considered for renewal in the first place?

This brings us neatly to another factor which I touched on earlier. Television companies do actually need to fill the time on their networks and making new shows can be a risky proposition. Community may only get three million viewers but it does get 3 million viewers and it has a concept that works, actors that work well in the roles and, critically at least, it’s a well-liked show that gets put up for awards and has nice things written about it in the press. If you can it, you have to replace it with something; and so many shows, especially comedies, simply don’t work at all, leaving networks floundering to fill schedules with something, anything, that they can put out there. A well-regarded show with low viewer numbers is better than some of the train-wreck cautionary tales that float around TV comedy circles.

Finally there is another big show which I think keeps some of these flows afloat and for this we go back, again, to Firefly. Whatever the reasoning behind Firefly’s cancellation – whether it was politics, cost or whatever, it generated a lot of ill-will towards the network in a key opinion-forming demographic that it still struggles with in some bitter corners today. Genre show fan-bases may be small, but they can be loud, organised and opinion forming. Are you the sort of network that cherishes the little guy shows? The shows that don’t have a big audience, that may not make money up front, but are worth making? Or are you the sort of cold-hearted monster that only cares for money, ratings and advertisers? What about Art? What about Beauty?

Let’s not kid ourselves; the answer is clearly the “cold hearted monster” one. But I think a lot of people in the industry at all levels do care about the sorts of shows that they make; they do want to make goods shows and they do want to be seen to supporting shows that are worthwhile. They do want to be seen to react to their audiences because their audience is important to them. And this means that shows with small, dedicated followings can survive, partly because they can still make money over a long enough timeframe, but partly, I believe, because the support that their audiences show for them genuinely makes a difference.

Ratings of Shows Referenced:

Fringe finale figures:

  • Season 1 – 9.28
  • Season 2 – 5.68
  • Season 3 – 3.29
  • Season 4 – 3.11

Community finale figures:

  • Season 1 – 4.41
  • Season 2 – 3.32
  • Season 3 – 2.58

The Big Bang Theory (averages):

  • Season 1 – 8.31
  • Season 2 – 10.0
  • Season 3 – 14.14
  • Season 4 – 13.14
  • Season 5 – 15.82


  • Season 1 – 4.48

Game of Thrones:

  • Season 1 – 3.0
  • Season 2 – 4.2

Once Upon A Time:

  • Season 1 – 9.66


  • Season 1 – 20.71
  • Season 5 (lowest) – 9.43


Geek Syndicate Magazine Issue 8

This article was originally published in Issue 3 of Geek Syndicate Magazine. The magazine is our free quarterly publication  jam packed with features, interviews, previews and more. Check out the back issues here.

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One comment

  1. mark /

    er when was this written

    community is now in it’s 5th year with it show runner dan harmon back

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