Internet Popularity vs. Television Ratings

Earlier this year, Hulu held its Best in Show competition. During the first week of voting, the online video site paired up shows and pitted them against one another. Like Weimaraners and border collies in their breed categories at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, TV shows such as Misfits and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia went head to head, with viewers voting for their favorite. Predictably, Always Sunny won that one, but Misfits—a British show that exclusively airs on Hulu in America—is one of my favorite shows. Much like the American Staffordshire terrier, Misfits seems to be misunderstood.

New Girl and Happy Endings fought it out in the New “Friends” category. Zooey Deschanel and her “adorkableness” moved on to the next round. I was less than thrilled about that outcome, because any show that makes Slobodan Milosevic jokes as fearlessly as Happy Endings gets my vote.

By the fifth week of voting, Community and The Walking Dead had won their groups—I’m thinking the tenacious Community was probably in the Terrier Group—and were battling it out for the Best in Show title. The scrappy Community beat everyone’s favorite zombie show by 11,000 votes. You might find this surprising if you’ve followed the trials and tribulations of Community, which is only clinging to its on-air life thanks to a small but vocal group of fans—and a none too subtle SUBWAY sponsorship.

All of this came to my attention when I read a Gawker article, “Why Community Is the Most Popular Show on the Internet.” Gawker chose to compare Community to one of the top-rated shows on television, The Big Bang Theory. “On Reddit, ‘the front page of the internet,’ the Community subreddit page has more than 40,000 subscribers; The Big Bang Theory, a tenth as many. Yet less than a week ago, Big Bang Theory was the highest-rated comedy in the country and Community, all but guaranteed cancellation within the next year, posted its lowest-ever ratings.”

It would seem that the jury is in about one thing: A cult following and internet popularity do not translate to television ratings. Just ask Conan O’Brien.

While Gawker explored “geekdom” during its ruminations about the success of Community, what I really have to ask is, “How much longer will television ratings really matter?” There will, no doubt, be an audience for endless iterations of Law & Order for years to come, but when it comes to truly great scripted shows, network television has been losing ground for years. In fact, during week four of the Best in Show voting, when only four shows were left, half were from the cable world—the aforementioned Walking Dead from AMC, and FX’s Sons of Anarchy.

Sadly, Misfits didn’t make it past the first round of voting—and even more sadly, the show is being worked up for American TV as I write—but considering it can only be watched online in the States, even being nominated is, as they say, an honor. Netflix recently introduced its first foray into original programming with Lilyhammer. Hulu is also getting into the original content game, and YouTube is working on improving its image when it comes to quality content.

How much longer will the Communities of the world have to suffer the indignities of constant speculation over their fate and the blatant product placement that keeps them afloat? The internet may yet prove to be the savior of great shows with devoted fan bases that don’t measure up to network expectations. And the networks would be remiss if they didn’t start thinking about turning their own websites into refuges for this kind of content—creating shelters for underdogs that need a second chance.

Lately, networks have been releasing pilots on the web before they air online, hoping to create buzz. I watched Don’t Trust the B---- in Apt 23 on Hulu weeks before it finally aired on ABC. Comedians Louis C.K. and Aziz Ansari—both of whom appear in shows that were nominated for Best in Show—have chosen to release their latest comedy specials as downloads available through their websites, forgoing the usual HBO or Comedy Central specials—even doing an end run around iTunes—and using the internet to go straight to their fans with great success.

The network brass clearly has no problem turning to the web to create buzz, or as a secondary channel for distribution, but most are still refusing to recognize its potential as a place for first-run content with niche appeal. How much longer can that last?