There’s been good news and bad news coming out of NBC’s day at the TV critics’ semi-annual press tour. NBC entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt assured reporters that Community will return this season — he’s just not sure when. Asked about its odds of renewal for a fourth season, however, he became cagey: “I don’t know. Those are hard questions to answer at this point … we’ll make that decision closer to the upfront.” His views on Chuck, which airs its series finale Jan. 27, were more clear. “Did you see the ratings?,” he asked when questioned about the decision to burn episodes over the holidays. “That rabid fanbase going crazy on the net didn’t come to the show. Chuck’s time had come. Chuck is over, let’s alert the masses.”
If you’re a fan of Chuck, those words are tough to take. You will have invested roughly 91 hours in the show, and while you can understand why the network bean-counters looking at the big picture would see it as “over,” that doesn’t diminish your disappointment and loss. Why’s it so hard to accept?
Aside from the investment issue and the saving/resurrection of shows like Friday Night Lights and Arrested Development, I think it’s fundamentally difficult for us to believe that Nielsen numbers accurately represent the following of a show when our Twitter and Facebook feeds tell us so many people we know are watching it. (It also doesn’t help that some people, like me, know that their sister was once asked to be a Nielsen viewer, but she declined because she doesn’t actually watch a lot of TV. In fact, now she only uses her flatscreen to watch the occasional Blu-ray or DVD.)
We’ve also witnessed the power of persuasion and conversion through social media: I know I finally read enough tweets about Downton Abbey to marathon it over the holidays and now I’m all-in for Sunday’s season 2 premiere. But does the intensity of an online fan community’s passion mask the fact that a show is largely ignored by the masses, or is Nielsen just not reaching the most avid TV viewers?
If Nielsen does have an accurate, reliable cross-section, then the question becomes: Is that Internet fanbase actually tuning in and watching their beloved program in ways that it can be measured? In competitive time slots, I know I factor in which shows will appear on Hulu or elsewhere online the next morning. But if my show is truly at risk, I’d like to think I’d make the effort to watch it in real time. Greenblatt’s comments were harsh, but he has a point: Do we have no one to blame but other fans?