For decades, it was easy to identify hit television shows: They were the programs with the highest Nielsen ratings. It was simple Darwinism, heartless but comprehensible. Then, everything went kablooey because of the internet, and now, nobody knows what a “hit” television show even is anymore. Are we talking live viewership? L+3? L+7? Just the 18-to-49 demographic? What about people watching on their phones? And do tweets count for anything, for the love of Christ? Slate television critic Willa Paskin sorts through all this puzzling evidence, non-evidence, and pseudo-evidence in a provocative article entitled, “Nothing’s A Hit Anymore.” Television ratings, Paskin argues, may be more difficult (if not impossible) to calculate these days, but they might also be TV’s only remaining “tether to realty” at a time when the entertainment industry routinely caters to niche audiences, seemingly without much thought given to mass popularity.
In delivering her message about the importance of ratings, Paskin delivers some harsh truths to her readers. The Wire? Never a hit. Mad Men? Never a hit. Girls? Outside of Twitter, still not a hit. It depends, though, what you consider a “hit” to be. “If passion and buzz correlated with ratings,” Paskin says, “Girls would be the most popular show of all time.” Networks, cable channels, and streaming services are now chasing prestige and social media chatter instead of actual, quantifiable viewership. Is this a solid business model? Furthermore, the shows most of America is actually watching, like NCIS and The Big Bang Theory, are getting short shrift in the larger cultural conversation because they’re deeply, profoundly uncool. Maybe, suggests Paskin, the industry is in need of a wake-up call. “Ratings may be an increasingly meaningless metric, a blunt instrument with hit or miss taste,” she writes, “but sometimes they still tell the truth.”