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."
Gorman he has long been baffled by the argument that he should change his data-driven approach just because some fans might use it to decide what shows to watch. "Critics tell you not to watch a show before you see it," he said. "I never tell people to watch a show or not. I don't care. I don't watch any TV shows, I don't care whether people watch the shows or not. I don't give a damn! I just tell people, if you think you're going to watch this show next year, you're kidding yourself. Or, if you're looking forward to this show next year, you'll get to see it. And if I'm not sure, I'm not sure."
The Bear presents itself as the distilled truth about the TV industry, and has swiped at other reporters for not being similarly ruthless in their reporting. Last year, Vulture's Josef Adalian wrote that NBC's new show Ironside was "hanging tough" with a low Nielsen rating; the Bear called him a "Hollywood suck-up." McNutt acknowledges the jokey tone of the Twitter account, but still bristles at its self-importance.
"I think having context for the economic principles behind industry decision-making is crucial and important," he said. "However, it is also nuanced and contextual, and something that should be explained to people in conscious detail more than it's delivered to them as a vindictive polemic from an anthropomorphized bear."
Gorman calls McNutt a "frenemy" (McNutt agrees) but argues that he's just helping translate the truth of the Nielsen numbers into something TV fans can understand. "My attitude is, if they want to know, let 'em know. Who is he or who is anyone to say they shouldn't know how those shows are doing?" he asked. "When Myles says the Cancellation Bear is this pernicious influence, that's just goofy."
Matt Zoller Seitz, the lead TV critic for New York magazine, weighed in this week over the Red Band Society comment and got in a scratching match with the Bear, who decried the two of them publicly in a semi-comical manner. But Seitz didn't walk away amused.
"To me, it just signals that in the last 20 years we've seen this really profound change in culture, which is that people now think of their time as being a form of money," he said. "And they don't want to invest their time unless there's going to be a guaranteed payout at the end, in the form of an ending, a grand finale that they can have a party and watch with their friends."
While Seitz took some online flack for comparing dropping a show that pulls low ratings to abandoning a friend who might have a terminal illness. "Maybe it was hyperbolic," Seitz said with a chuckle. "I stand by that! I absolutely fucking stand by that, I really do! It's like, 'Oh, well you're not going to be around for very long, I'm out of here.'"
The Bear may be a jokey account, but its implications are insidious, Seitz argues. "They should call it Pander Bear. Because it's pandering to people who want to be on the winning side. There's a specific strain in the American character that wants to root for the winning team… It's contrary to every impulse that has made television more interesting in the last quarter-century, the artistic impulse."
Gorman is upfront about his disinterest in the artistic side of television, referring to McNutt and other critics as "TV is Art guys." He admits he rarely watches much scripted television ("I'm just not that entertained"), even though almost all of the Cancellation Bear's coverage focuses on it.
"I have no problem with 'TV is Art' people until they say 'Just shut up about how well a show is doing.' What? I don't get into 'This show is good, this show is bad,' I don't care about that!" he said. "But it's when they say, "It's just art, you shouldn't talk about it that way.' That's just nonsense."
For Seitz, a show on the brink of cancellation often offers the juiciest experience of all. "When I heard from my friends at HBO that The Comeback was very likely not going to make it past one season, I watched every episode of that thing like it was an eclipse, like it was a natural event that would happen once in my lifetime," he said. "There are shows that have a very short lifespan, but they were absolutely beautiful, wonderful exquisite creatures, and you're happy to have gotten to know them. And there are shows that last forever to the point where you even sort of forget they're even around."
The irony, of course, is that The Comeback, which was cancelled by HBO after one season in 2005, is coming back to the network this year, having built up a significant cult in the intervening years. Indeed, the old industry standard of cancellation equaling death is less and less firmly entrenched. Community was kicked to the curb by NBC but rescued by Yahoo for a sixth season, Cougar Town seamlessly jumped to TBS, and Twin Peaks is returning to Showtime some 25 years after ABC pulled the plug.
"The industry is so radically changing that the Cancellation Bear's model is flirting with obsolescence," said Todd VanDerWerff, the culture editor of Vox (and, full disclosure, my former editor at The A.V. Club). "It's obviously not there yet. But shows are increasingly less about individual performance and more about how much cash can be squeezed from them and into corporate coffers."
In the glory days of network television, the ratings gulf between a successful show and a flop was vast; as cable TV has spread and internet viewing has skyrocketed, the margins have shrunk significantly. "Hence NBC bringing back Parks and Recreation for one final season but canceling Community, when the latter had slightly higher ratings," VanDerWerff said. "At these levels of the Nielsens, differences are immaterial."
The Bear is probably the best-known ratings watcher, but his approach is "emblematic of how data-driven entertainment journalism hasn't really advanced beyond 'high number good, low number bad,'" VanDerWerff added. "It's similar to the way that online sparring over Rotten Tomatoes numbers removes the critical conversation from the realm of talk and places it in the realm of numbers. It's emblematic of the way the Internet wants to turn everything into a sport."
Since Gorman has sold the site along with his co-founder Robert Seidman, he may only man the Bear account for another season before deciding to hang it up. But he thinks the implications of the raw data of TV ratings remain uniquely interesting from a journalistic perspective.
"What fascinated me about this whole process, even before we started this site, is that there is no other industry in America, certainly not one this big, that gives us a report card every single day," he said. "How many did cars GM sell yesterday? I think they know, but nobody else knows! Nobody else will ever know! How many people watched NBC last night? Well, I know as much as NBC knows! You can argue about how accurate it is, but accurate or not, that's what matters."
But VanDerWerff thinks we might know too much. "The constant fretting about numbers creates an environment where the reasons to love a show become immaterial when compared to the show's need to survive," he said. "We went through that with season three of Community. It was a messier season than the first two, but because it was constantly hovering above the cancellation fire, expressing even the mildest amount of doubt about it became a heresy.
"Freaks and Geeks is not lessened by being a one-season show. Criminal Minds is not heightened by being a nine-season show … I'm just uncomfortable with anything that boils the success of art down to a business hierarchy, basically," he continued. "People should learn to embrace the inevitable end of all things."