Fake News and Popularity

Fake News and Popularity

I spend a lot of time correlating the statistics of shows with queerness, their (relative) success, and the relationship to the volume of queer characters on screen to the deaths of said characters. With that, however, are some notably flaws to the process.

The Flaws

First of all, there’s no collective database of all TV characters, internationally, and their deaths. IMDb is built to record and collate the actors and their works, not the characters per sey, which results in a way to get a vague idea of how many actors a TV series might have, but not their characters. This is especially true of any animated series, wherein a smaller number of actors play a larger set of characters.

The second major hurdle is that while linear media is well tracked by the Nielsens, the same cannot be said of streaming media. Netflix, for example, is not particularly keen on sharing the specifics of viewers. In addition, they have what I can only call the most asinine metric for viewership, which is that if you watch two minutes of a show, you count as a viewer. Or rather, you count as someone who chose to watch a show. And with other streamers this is insurmountable, as Amazon, Disney+, and Hulu share nothing. “Just trust us when we say this is popular.”

The third hurdle is directly related to the second. In lieu of any actual data, any attempt to connect the dots between a show that is popular and a show with queer characters that is popular forces you to use things like Rotten Tomatoes or IMDb, where the general populace ‘votes.’ And while that sounds great, the sad truth is that nuance is lost with their scores. A show is either good or bad, and there’s no chance to identify what was wrong with it. In addition, it’s important to question the user base.

The fourth hurdle is just that: demographics. That is, who is leaving the grade? While we don’t have great demographics for Rotten Tomatoes, what we do know is that people who self-report using it to grade shows are 50-70% male, and roughly 30% are 24 and younger. It is not unreasonable to extrapolate from this and assume that most people leaving grades are cis-white men, under 40 years of age. That heavily skews the results, and you can make some predictions based on that user base as to which shows will be down-graded into oblivion.

Finally, our fifth hurdle is history. And that is, we have no blessed idea what was popular on streaming media in years past, due to a lack of information. Without honest, unbiased, 3rd party tracking, we can never know this. Allowing people to self-report success leads to lies and fabrications of conclusions that no one can argue.

The Water Cooler vs The Binge

When I started working for The Man (I used to work at a Bank), there was a concept of the Water Cooler. On ‘smoke breaks’ people used to congregate with coffee or water, and chat about the most popular TV shows of the era. Seinfield, Friends, ER, and the like were all incredibly well discussed. We didn’t have DVR back then, and while some people recorded a show to watch later, most of us had appointment TV where we might have even unplugged a phone so we could watch our favorite shows and their season finales. After all, if someone had called me when Aaron Echolls popped up behind Veronica Mars in that season finale? I would have missed the moment!

Fast forward a mere 15 years, and we now have to ask “Hey, have you watched X yet?” with a different mindset. it’s no longer “Did you watch so we can chat?” but “Did you watch or are you saving it to binge?” We voluntarily tag ourselves with #spoilers to warn our friends who cannot live-watch Wynonna Earp, and sometimes we get into fights as to if revealing something from a finale 4 weeks ago is a spoiler or not.

There are good and bad take aways from this. There’s nothing wrong with binging a series, first of all. I’ve been known to sit and watch all of a season for shows like One Day at a Time in one day. At the same time, when some shows drop, I’ll watch one episode a day, or even a week, just to make it stretch out. This is more true now with the COVID related quarantine, as I do fear the day I get through the ‘good’ television I have backlogged and have to step into the mediocre or flat out bad TV.

Interestingly enough, streamers have started to experiment with paced releases. Netflix is releasing each episode of The Barrier one week at a time. Amazon Prime did the same with The Boys, and found themselves the object of much hatred and vitriol. It’s hard to say if this is a success yet or not, especially with increasing prices for streamers. What we can say is that our viewing habits have changed significantly from the days where watching a comedy in no particular order was the norm, to main-lining it all in an afternoon was expected behaviour.

What Can We Connect?

The ultimate question we have, though, is can we draw a line between shows that are popular and shows that have queerness? Can we track the growth of the popularity of queerness successfully and reliably based on unreliable data? Can we ever actually know the truth, or will be always be anecdotally grasping at straws?

I believe the truth will be in a service like the Nielsens, where in a 3rd party collects and reports. But with that said, the Nielsens need to grow and change as well. They only check a small slice of the pie and use it to extrapolate, doing so within strict boundaries. I know they do it because if you expand those limits it becomes hard and harder to see, but it’s work they will need to do, if we want to see more than the same old shows over and over again.

We need to look at the world we’re in and have it properly represented in the world we see on TV, if we want to move beyond a world where the most popular shows are all the same.

About Mika A. Epstein

Mika has been deep in fandom since she could say 'Trekkie.' With decades experience in running fansites, developing software, and organizing communities, she's taken on the challenge of delving into the recesses of television for queers long forgotten. Making this site with Tracy is nothing short of serendipity. Mika lives with her wife and their cats in Southern California. Of course she has a hybrid, but she'd rather ride her bicycle.

2 thoughts on “Fake News and Popularity

  • Streaming mediums are on the rise, no question about it, and yes they are less forthcoming than traditional media when it comes to viewership transparency. Frankly, they don’t need to share it – Subscription-based models still have not hit the saturation point. Until they start moving into an advertising-based model, and it’s coming soon – Amazon and Netflix appointment-based show drops is their test into an ad-based model.

    Streaming also further complicates things since there isn’t a universal agreement on audience measurement and the traditional metrics defined by the established networks and Nielsons are no longer applicable or even relevant. Do we still believe in prime-time TV or are 18 to 25 years olds still the coveted audience to attract? Who is still watching shows on a TV set?

    For anyone who is interested in extrapolating meaningful statistical significant data pulled from these sources as your site does now is not an easy task. You are left with sorting through your own set of results sourcing from data sets that are often skewed or too small to be significant. It’s crazy to attempt, let alone accomplishing and maintaining it.

    To your point, can we draw a line between shows that are popular and are also queer? I am not sure if that connection is necessary. And if we can observe the growth of queerness in shows, popular or otherwise? This probably depends on whom you ask. Personally, I am just happy to sit back and watch some good shows.

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    • The reason I think the connection is needed is that representation is still pretty lacking. Sure we have a couple thousand shows listed, but that’s a drop in the bucket. And one of the many arguments made is ‘minorities don’t sell’ which (theoretically) is why most TV shows star cis white men. Now, we already know that BIPOC representation is hamstrung, regardless of popularity, by the people who make the decisions about what shows to produce and which to not. I want to know if they’re right, that queers and BIPOC don’t sell. And I would need data for that.

      Transparency can help others, too. If more networks (linear or streaming) share the data on what was and was not a ‘success’ and how they measure that, then we suddenly develop a race to the top. That is, let’s say Netflix revealed a show actually was watched by many viewers, but they decided it wasn’t worth keeping because it didn’t bring in NEW viewers. And then they shared those numbers? Like “We expect a show to bring in 5% new viewers per season?” That would empower the show runners to at least have a fighting chance. A black box? That just has a history of perpetuating racism and inequality 🙁

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