The sun doesn’t always shine on TV / The short head of television

A few weeks ago I read that AMC’s ‘Breaking Bad’ spinoff  ‘Better Call Saul’ Series Debut broke Cable Ratings Records, reaching a staggering 6.9 million viewers.

Few days later the ‘Two and a Half Men’ Series Finale also scored its Biggest Viewership since April 2013 with an average of 13.5 million viewers from 9 to 10 p.m. making everyone happy.

A month earlier ‘How I Met Your Mother’ series finale also broke another ratings record. The episode was aired on Jan 2015 reaching 12.9 million viewers becoming the show’s most-watched and highest-rated episode of all time.

Do you see where I am getting at?

A year and a half earlier, in Sep 2013, 10.3 million people tuned in to watch the last episode of “breaking bed”. A huge success for the network AMC and a new record for network television (for a show that is not football).

May 2010 – 13.5 million viewers sat through the two-and-a-half-hour long and last episode of ABC series “lost”,” lifting ABC to its best non-Oscars Sunday night in two and a half years and posting what are likely to be the best finale numbers for any scripted show this television season” (according to the New York times)

June 2007 – 11.9 million viewers watched “The Sopranos” finale, “bringing HBO to the edge of a historic feat: a show on a pay cable network available in about 30 million homes was more popular last week than all but one show on the far larger world of broadcast television.” (The Washington post).

The Sopranos Season 6, Episode 21 “Made in America” from Press Play Video Blog on Vimeo.

Starts like a short head classic, doesn’t it?

Well, let’s go 3 years earlier to 2004.

‘Friends’ last episode gets 52.5 million viewers (5 times more than ‘the Sopranos’).

6 years earlier, in 1998, Seinfeld’s last episode reached 76.3 million viewers.

15 years earlier, in 1983, M*A*S*H  final episode reached 105.9 million viewers.

In fact the 10 Most-Watched Series Finales Ever are all kind of old. Very old. Most of them are from another century.

  1. Home Improvement, 1999. 35.5 million viewers.
  2. Family Ties, 1989. 36.3 million viewers.
  3. All in the Family, 1979. 40.2 million viewers.
  4. The Cosby Show, 1992. 44.4 million viewers.
  5. Magnum, P.I., 1988. 50.7 million.
  6. Friends, 2004.52.5 million viewers.
  7. Seinfeld,1998. 76.3 million viewers.
  8. The Fugitive,1967. 78 million people.
  9. Cheers,1993. 80.4 million viewers.
  10. M*A*S*H, 1983. 105.9 million viewers.

Oops, Huston, seems like we have got a problem.

How can the short head explain this list? A short head follower would expect that the list would be assembled by TV shows from the recent years, just like we see in the movie industry.

Is it possible that the TV hits are 10 times lesser today than what they used to be? It completely challenges the first rule of the short head. Also how does it stand with all the “record breaking” headlines of the last couple of months?


Micro content

10years ago, in Jan 2005, Thomas hawk, a digital guy who was also a follower of Chris Anderson’s long tail theory, wrote in his blog:

“If today I watch CSI Miami, but on my weekends go out hang gliding and am a huge hangliding fan, when the California hang gliding championships end up being broadcast through a microcontent platform I will end up watching that instead of CSI.

If today I watch some network television but even more than my network television I love reading author Hunter S. Thompson, and my microcontent platform brings me a talk by Hunter S. Thompson from the University of Wyoming I will end up watching that instead of CSI.

If I am 16 and my favorite band is not what hits the charts but rather the latest skate punk music thing, then the custom skate punk music shows that can easily be created and delivered to my microcontent platform will be much more interesting to me than American Idol.”

Could it be that Hawk’s long tail prediction really occurred and it is responsible for this outcome?

Not really.

There is another much simple explanation.


The elastic aspect of television

How many channels were there when MASH was broadcasted? Here is a hint. You could count them with one hand. Back then there was no long tail. Actually there was hardly any tail at all for TV.

People watched the same things because there was almost nothing else to watch.

The average TV rating numbers started to go down as more TV channels came along and offered a choice of things to watch on TV.

Since 1999 there was a 1,000% surge in the number of scripted series produced for just pay and basic cable.

In a panel of TV producers that was held in June 2014, said John Landgraf. CEO of FX Networks:

“I don’t know that people are aware of this, but if you think about it, for 50 years there were three broadcast networks. So there were probably at any given moment 60 or 70 scripted original series in America. When the fourth [network] came on, probably 80. Best count I have is there will be about 350 scripted original series produced and marketed in the American television market this year… And I think that 350 will probably push to 400 next year.”

But let’s not be mistaken. The absence of new TV series in the 10 Most-Watched Series Finales Ever list is not the effect of a long tail.

This is the result of a very short head of channels with a variety that we didn’t have before.

 The head of the demand curve will always hit the sky when there are no substitutes or alternatives. It is called an inelastic demand curve.


inelastic demand curve


Throughout the years, with the introduction of new channels, the demand curve turned from inelastic to more elastic and the hits lost their heights. It is a change in the demand curve that has nothing to do with the long tail.

Yet in the last couple of years TV has developed a long tail with all kinds of web series and platforms that can now be considered substitutes to the mainstream TV broadcasters.

Some of these long tail videos and creators succeed to reach a very nice number of viewers. Some of them became short head winners in this new category of web video, which we will talk about later on.

However, they haven’t changed much of the economy of TV in terms of the short head and long tail. Most of them joined the endless line of long tail losers. Few of them became short head winners.

What we do see is how social media helps the short head rise above in this new ocean of original video.

Entertainment weekly described it like this: “There’s probably never been a series that’s better demonstrated the awesome and exponential power of catch-up viewing. Breaking Bad was like a virus (or perhaps a drug) that slowly spread for years, then suddenly exploded into a nationwide outbreak. Very late in its run, Breaking Bad went from being that dark show your one TV-savvy friend loves to being the big hit your whole office is talking about. Breaking Bad will not only be remembered as a TV drama that went out on top – creatively, and in terms of popularity – but possibly as a game-changer for underdog TV shows. The second half of the fifth season premiered last month to a stunningly large audience for the long-struggling cult-favorite series, delivering a record 5.9 million viewers. A couple weeks ago, ratings notably rose to 6.4 million viewers. Then last week’s penultimate hour crept up to 6.6 million.For the grand series finale Sunday night, Breaking Bad hit 10.3 million viewers, with a 5.2 rating among adults 18-49.”

The so called “virus”, that word of mouth mechanism that evolves through social media, works like a charm when it comes to original TV series, just like it does with movies, mobile apps and music.

At the end of the day, when we sit down to watch TV, we don’t want to waste our time on micro-content or original content experiments. What we really want to see is what everybody else is seeing and talking about.

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1 Comment

  1. Interesting!
    The long tail, if I am not remember correctly, also suggested that the total time spent on TV will decrease because of the Internet while the truth is that it increased in the last several years.

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