Mr. TV: Redefining the ‘Hit’

I’ll admit it: I was completely wrong about Fox’s Glee, which returns this week.  

I came to my misguided conclusion about the Fox series because I struggled to shake the belief that shows with musical interludes—classic Fame included—just can’t be taken all that  seriously. What I failed to realize is the definition of a “hit” has become a much more multi-layered proposition than the traditional measures of yesteryear.

By the raw ratings, Glee to date is no blockbuster. Naturally, the numbers will increase dramatically now that it is airing out of American Idol on Tuesday (starting this week). But respectable ratings in fourth quarter even without support from then-absent Idol were enhanced by massive iTunes downloads of Glee songs, the growing press junket and critical accolades, including Golden Globe for Best Comedy or Musical. So, there was something from the get-go.

When people like myself assess the performance of a series, there are now many other things to take into account. The moment I saw Glee on the cover of Rolling Stone, for example, I knew it was time for me to expand my thinking.

With that in mind, I think The CW should renew recently introduced drama Life Unexpected for a second season. Based solely on the live-plus-7-day ratings, yes, the axe should swing.
But DVR playback continues to bring more viewers to the table, watercooler buzz seems to be bubbling and the Web is bursting with petitions to save this series (including the countless fans who keep e-mailing me). Since Life Unexpected is reminiscent of Gilmore Girls—and that gang at quirky Stars Hollow was not exactly a ratings success in season one—Life  is a show worth keeping.

From a traditional ratings standpoint, CW favorite Gossip Girl is no blockbuster. Never has been; never will be. But I do see the heavy concentration of young females who watch via DVRs and online. As of April 1, in fact, the Gossip Girl Facebook fan page has 2.22 million fans, which ranks it No. 8 among all TV pages on the social media platform.

All this off-channel buzz building is obviously here to stay. Still, I miss the days when I had something of a serialized nature I could sink my teeth into. Back in the day, shows offered up sweeping cliff-hangers. such as who kidnapped Val’s twins on Knots Landing, who survived the earthquake on Falcon Crest and who, of course, shot J.R. on Dallas. Sadly, that concept has been all but abandoned, and series like Gossip Girl, One Tree Hill, 90210 or Melrose Place (or ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice for that matter) offer little in the way of over-the-top excitement.

Defining a hit show used to be a snap. You looked at the household rating versus the competition, retention from the lead-in (if it was not the 8 p.m. anchor) and the recent and year-ago time period average. Every now and then there was an exception like the time when low-rated sitcom All in the Family was given a reprieve because of all the Emmy attention. Or when the fan outcry gave canceled Cagney & Lacey a second chance. Even Cheers was slow to catch on.

At present, marginally viewed shows like NBC’s 30 Rock, Fox’s Fringe or The CW’s Supernatural can survive for years because of the young demo profiles they command. Hit shows on The CW and cable are defined differently because of the smaller distribution platforms. And every series has the advantage of picking up extra eyeballs outside of the once traditional viewing measures and medium, including DVD sales (which, in fact, brought Fox’s Family Guy back from the dead).

Publish date: April 11, 2010 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT