For most people watching a TV show, its ratings success is probably not a major factor. Say "Nielsens" or "the demo" to many Americans and you'll get a puzzled look; it stands to reason that viewers rarely care whether or not a show is on the brink of cancellation.
But in recent years, ratings-watching has evolved beyond pure industry gossip to something the average Internet user can participate in, and the website TV By the Numbers has been a leading resource for all the raw Nielsens data that TV studios use to make programming decisions. And if that's too confusing to sift through, there's always the Cancellation Bear—a web creature that’s either an informative pal to viewers everywhere, or a predator terrorizing quality TV, depending on who you ask.
TV By the Numbers co-founder Bill Gorman created the Bear four years ago as a whimsical way to keep track of the site's "Renew/Cancel Index," which predicts every major show's chances of surviving the TV season and getting picked up for next year. If your ratings are slipping, you're getting closer to the bear; if you're doing well, you're further away from it. If you're certain to be cancelled, well, you're bear chow.
"It goes back to the old joke of two guys running from the bear," Gorman said in an interview. "One guy says, 'We'll never outrun the bear!' The other guy says, 'I don't have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you.'" That model more or less follows for the TV industry: If you're keeping ahead of the pack, you're probably going to survive. The "Bear" tweets frequently from an account run by Gorman, basically the only responsibility he maintains at TV By the Numbers ever since selling the site to the Tribune company this year. While he largely updates on shows' survival chances, he also occasionally derides protest from the fans of low-rated series hoping that their show will endure based on love from critics or studio heads. This is "Fan Excuse Bingo" to the Bear, and easily dismissed.
As a result, the Bear frequently runs afoul of TV reporters and critics who object to its single-minded approach. While TV By the Numbers is often accurate in its cancellation predictions, the Bear's bluntness can be a little hard to take, especially if your favorite show is in peril. Myles McNutt of The A.V. Club has long clashed with Gorman on Twitter (and once wrote about it on his personal blog); he recently took exception to a commenter on a TV By the Numbers article who said he was giving up on watching Fox's Red Band Society because of its low ratings.
This, to McNutt, exemplifies the problem of the Bear and its maniacal focus on business and ratings in TV reporting. "We live in an age where there's too much to watch, and whether or not a show will survive can be a way to measure which shows are worth committing to," he said in an interview. "But the idea that someone who was enjoying something, something that is not heavily serialized, and could still air its full 13 episode order, and chose to stop watching it because it's likely it won't get an additional season, strikes me as a concerning development."