Big Deal TV Writers and Ratings Angst

Everybody knows TV ratings are inaccurate and obsolete and have been since the day they were introduced. But that doesn’t keep those whose careers depend on the TV shows they work on appearing to be huge successes from stressing out about them, even now, during our latest “Golden Age of Home Entertainment.” (Can we even call it “television” when the majority of the audience is watching on computers, cell phones, and tablets now?)

Cases in point:


Kurt Sutter, Adam Pally, and More Share Their TV-Ratings Anxiety
by Maria Elena Fernandez and Josef Adalian


…Liz Tigelaar, executive producer of Casual
There are a million wonderful things about writing for Casual on Hulu — the pedigree of the team involved, actors who are game to try anything and can do everything, creative support from our studio and network … and, for the first time, not worrying about ratings. Which, let’s face it, have become overrated. We no longer wake up the morning after we’ve aired frantically refreshing our browsers. We don’t utter the word demo or agonize over the Live+7’s. Gone is the arbitrary ratings roller coaster where a 1.8 means you’re a hit, a 1.6 means you’re on the bubble, and a 1.4 means the CW just put reruns of an unnamed show in your time slot (Hellcats).

I wrote for another unnamed show almost a decade ago (What About Brian?). As chronic underdogs, we were stunned when we got word that in the overnights we’d beaten our biggest competition (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip). An article came out eviscerating Studio 60’s poor numbers, but took aim at us, too. It said Studio 60 was doing so badly that even the sluggish hold-over What About Brian? had beaten it. Even our victory was framed as our loss. But now things are different. Fuck those ratings, right? Our lives no longer hang in the balance of every tenth of a point. Now we can focus our energy on what’s important: sitting in the writer’s room, talking about bad dates, family dysfunction, failed relationships … and deciding what we’re going to order for lunch. Half our room wants our old standby (Cuvee) while the other half wants something new (Sweetgreen). But before we pull the trigger, we just need to look Sweetgreen up online. Because there’s no way in hell we’re wasting our free lunch order on somewhere that doesn’t have a decent rating.


Kurt Sutter, creator and executive producer of The Bastard Executioner and Sons of Anarchy
I am a storyteller. My job is to share a vision in an engaging and entertaining way. To do that, I need an audience. Ratings are how I measure that audience. Good reviews and awards are wonderful acknowledgements of creativity, but at the end of the day, they don’t mean shit. The size of my viewing circle is how I gauge my effort. That is how I determine whether my story is compelling. Is my audience moved? Are they intrigued? Are they laughing? Do they relate? Am I telling their story? Are the themes powerful? Is the protagonist speaking to them? Are his or her beliefs, needs, and desires relevant? And most importantly, do they want to see more? If I can do all these things, I can sustain and hopefully increase my circle. If I cannot, the circle finds a better story and goes away. Measuring the size of an audience is an imperfect, confusing, and mercurial science, but it is the only formula we have. So we do our best to determine the size of the circle.

I cannot do what I was put here to do without my circle….

Read what other writers, actors, and producers have to say on the subject at Vulture