Every time Netflix releases a new hit original series, the television traditionalists cough up a small but audible hairball. While Netflix execs throw extravagant launch parties and watch their subscribers binge-tweet, networks beg the online service to release its viewer numbers. And every time, they are left with a stern but calm "no." This release cycle for House of Cards Season 2 has been no different. Netflix refuses to release its numbers, network television worries its antennas off, and internet ramblers once again worry about the "end" of television.
Now, I'm not an expert on statistics or anything involving charts, so I won't be the one to pronounce network television "dead." Nor do I particularly care, since, like most of my millennial comrades, I have taken to those anti-American paid streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon (which gives me both unfettered access to three seasons of Veronica Mars, and free shipping on the distressed tees I buy as a result). But I am excited to see ratings burn out like the last season of Community.
Before I go any further, we all need to remember that, for traditional T.V. in the US, ratings matter. More specfically, official Nielson ratings matter. Ratings are the last word on whether shows like Firefly or Pushing Daisies get cancelled before their prime, and they determine placement of shows in primetime. Even though the networks still rely on ratings to drive ad sales, the ratings system no longer works to determine the most-watched TV shows. As Netflix execs have put it, they don't rely on "advertising" or "retransmission," so they don't care who watches what, as long as they pay their monthly fee on time. Yet the pop culture media still feels the need harp on ratings, with sections of trade websites like Variety placing "Ratings" between "News" and "Reviews." Even if the Nielson ratings system takes into account all of the ways people watch network TV (which it may not), it will never be able to account for streaming services like Netflix, Crackle, Vudu, or Amazon, since they refuse to report viewer numbers. And all official ratings systems will miss all of the people who get their television through less costly, and less legal, means.
But never fear, numbers-crazed T.V. followers, for a new "cottage industry" of freelance online ratings experts has cropped up, with every startup claiming to generate accurate viewership data. So, at the very least, we are entering a new, Wild West phase of television ratings, where someone with a statistics degree and some spunk could put out better numbers than a Fortune 500 company. At most, we are seeing the slow retreat of ads on television, and the beginning of a pay-to-play subscription model. If only the network companies would catch up with Netflix, we might see the end of ratings.