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Hulu Headaches: Modern Family Co-Creator Steve Levitan Discusses Flawed Ratings System's Improper Counting

Just two weeks after making statements at the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour about his desire that ABC remove his show from Hulu and, Modern Family's co-creator Steve Levitan again fired back at digital platforms earlier this week, following the announcement of a potential IPO for Hulu.

"Some estimate Hulu IPO could bring in $2Bil," wrote Levitan on Twitter. "What will the content providers get? Zero. What is Hulu without content? An empty jukebox."

Levitan's frustration is palpable, particularly when you consider that Hulu and other online platforms like the network's own could be siphoning away viewers from the linear broadcast. While that's to be expected in an age of heavy DVR users, time-shifting, and an array of potential platforms from which to consume programming, it fails to address one major issue, said Levitan: these viewers aren't necessarily being counted when looking at the overall ratings for an individual program.

While I had spoken to Levitan last week for a piece about Modern Family's Emmy nominations for The Daily Beast, Levitan and I got to speaking about his comments at TCA Summer Press Tour regarding Hulu and about his fears that viewers are slipping through the cracks. What follows is a section from the transcript of our conversation.

Jace Lacob: You’ve been outspoken about your desire that Modern Family be removed from online sites like Hulu and because it further fractures the ratings portrait for the show. Do you think the show would benefit by limiting its availability outside of the linear broadcast?

Steve Levitan: In a weird way, I don’t want to say that I regret those comments but I think that they deserve a finer point. I want as many people to watch our show as possible. All I am saying is that we want credit for that. That’s really it. We want there to be a ratings system that encompasses all viewing on all devices: on broadcast television, on your iPad, on Hulu, on iTunes, on your DVR, whatever it is, because more and more it just seems like there’s a feeling that network comedy is dying because, look, the numbers are down.

But one could argue that, yeah, the numbers are down somewhat because of the fractured nature of the audience but when you start adding up all the different ways that someone can see the show, maybe the story is much more impressive than it appears, across the board. In a lot of ways, this is not just a beef for this show, it’s a note in general, which is to say that we need transparency, we need to know that these shows are reaching— How many millions of people are being missed because they are not being properly counted? It’s not money in my pocket that I’m crowing about here, that somehow I’m get ripped off or whatever.

But when people say, wow, your show gets 10 million viewers each week--or whatever it ended up being--but, boy, ten years ago, 18 million people were watching, that sounds really depressing and you can understand why the networks and the studios are pounding down everyone’s salaries. But when you look at the bigger picture and count all the other ways that people can watch it, the story is better than it appears. The picture it brighter than it appears. So that’s really what my beef is. I am frustrated that I can’t ever get a straight answer as to how many people are watching our show.

Lacob: The system itself would seem to be inherently flawed, given the proliferation of ways that viewers can watch shows. That was the case with Starz and Party Down, where far too many people were watching via Netflix streaming rather than via the linear broadcast on the network.

Levitan: That’s a perfect example, where if you’re giving it away in such a manner that those eyeballs are not being counted, then it’s one tiny notch better than not having those eyeballs at all. That’s a confusing statement. I care about quality television and I know that producing a quality television show along the lines of Lost or Modern Family or you name it, in order to sustain a show like this, it takes enormous resources. One person can’t do this. It’s not throwing up a hilarious 45-second video on YouTube. You have to sustain this over time and that takes a giant investment by a studio. And the only way the studios are going to continue to make those kind of big investments is if they know there’s a payoff at the end and if we continue dilute that big payoff at the end then they’re continue to push down their initial investments. At the end of the day, the quality over a long period of time will begin to dissipate.

That is what concerns me. I don’t want it misunderstood: I value every single one of our fans. I really, really do. It kind of bothered me that I came off as not caring about those people who for some reason can’t watch it the traditional way. I do value those viewers. I just want them to be counted.

Lacob: You’re saying it doesn’t matter how people consume the show, just that they do consume it in some fashion and their viewership should be counted towards the overall figures for the show.

Levitan: Exactly. Look at the reporting practices. Everyone tunes in, that next morning, the numbers are tallied and printed that same day. That’s the big number, that’s the number that people care about and then it’s pretty much forgotten. So all the numbers that drift in over the next week--digital and DVR numbers and all that--that’s a twelfth page story.

Lacob: The overnights are sort of a fait accompli right now.

Levitan: Which is silly when you think about the way that our show is being consumed.

Season Two of Modern Family launches this fall on ABC.


KriZia said…
It's true. Especially with the way scheduling is these days, I have to TiVo two shows in a one-hour block on, say, a Thursday night, and then catch up on the rest I couldn't record the next day (or couple of days later) on Hulu or some other website. This might be seen as a poor example to some, but when Dollhouse was on the air I griped about the same issue, which a lot of Friday night shows face.

I even thought that once I purchased a TiVo that I would be counted amongst DVR viewers when they're reported about two weeks later. But even then I was told that those numbers only consist of viewers with DVRs connected to their Nielsen boxes. The Nielsen ratings system has been the sole ratings powerhouse for years and is, in my opinion, officially broken due to other avenues of television viewing, such as Hulu.
ted23 said…
Well said, Steve. It's ridiculous that the system hasn't been overhauled or ditched in light of platform advances. I don't understand the hold that Nielsen has over Hollywood.
Anonymous said…
Wish more people had the conviction and guts to stand up to the system. I watch just about everything on Hulu because I don't want to give my lousy cable company more money for a dvr and want flexibility of watching when I want to. Should my viewership not be counted? I still watch the shows and not illegally. System is massively screwed up.
Edward said…
But all the platforms Steve mentioned*are* counted. What really needs an overhaul is the attitude to overnights. Sure, give "Live broadcast" viewers the next day.

But then they should tally up the DVR, iTunes, unbox, Hulu numbers for 7 days after and give everyone an "all media" figure. It's not rocket science.
ted23 said…
@edward But those numbers--live and DVR--aren't really known; they're just calculated by percentages of the sample group that Nielsen monitors. They have no real relevance whatsoever in a time where people are using DVRs more than ever to time shift and watching in other ways. No way to pull together those numbers in any meaningful or fast way!
Magnolia said…
I would hate for Modern Family to be removed from online viewing. Even though it's one of the few "appointment" shows that I have, I like to watch an episode online every once in awhile when I need a pick-me-up. I'll definitely get the DVDs when they come out, but I think I'll do the same during season two.
TC said…
I'm really tired of people saying the ratings system is flawed and then further commenting to prove that they haven't got a clue about the system.

The ratings system is designed for advertisers to tell them how many eyes may have watched their ads. BECAUSE the ads pay or help pay to bring said show to the public.

Levitan should make sure his contract specifies what platforms his show is put on and the share of revenue from those platforms otherwise he should quit griping.
Razorback said…
Funny how I posted this on my blog today as well. I don't think MF is in any danger of suffering for those online views like CHUCK is but...
Xenaclone said…
Perhaps the network only could make programs available for download via secure server on line for a modest fee for X days after broadcast. That way they could tally up the numbers watching any particular program.

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