“Sleepy Hollow” Ratings Woes: Should You Be Worried?

Edited to reflect more accuracy with ratings numbers

I’ve been keeping tabs on Sleepy Hollow‘s ratings this season, and even though we’re only three episodes into the season, I think it’s time to start looking at things objectively instead of subjectively. Sleepy Hollow is facing some tough times when it comes to ratings, and if support doesn’t come soon from viewership, the tough times are going to get even worse. 

I don’t like the fact that I’m writing negatively about Sleepy Hollow, since it’s one of my favorite shows, but we have to be real now. The show’s not doing as well as it should, and certainly not as well as I expected, particularly with the premiere. I expected that with the fight to get the show back for a third season, the fandom that was there in Season 1 would at least tune in to see what was happening for the Season 3 premiere. That didn’t really turn out to be the case.

But, on the other hand, there still is an ardent fandom for the show, and FOX supported it enough to bring it back for a third season when conventional wisdom would have had as a cancelled show. So what’s going on? Let’s look at three different factors: the numbers, FOX’s support (or lack thereof), and international sales. After all that, I’ll give my complete overview of an opinion. Sorry in advance if this my opinion makes some of my Sleepy Hollow regulars annoyed and/or disgruntled, since it’s a rare day when it seems like I, who hates henny-pennying with certain fandom issues, might be buying into what looks like henny-pennying. But my opinion is what it is and you can disagree or not.

The numbers: The numbers are what are tantamount to me and to the networks. There has been talk about international stuff and using online and DVR viewership, and there’s something to that, but from what I’ve learned and seen on the internet, numbers on the night of airing are still #1. The other numbers factor into a show’s overall performance, but those live numbers, for better or worse, are still calculated as top dog numbers. Take for instance, EmpireEmpire is a show that doesn’t need to worry about ratings that much, because even when it loses viewership, it’s still miles ahead of the top rated shows on any network. And the numbers that are touted the most from Empire aren’t numbers from DVR recordings or Hulu viewings, whether or not they’re recorded and factored in later on. The numbers that are touted the most are the live numbers. The show itself is created for live audiences, because live audiences live-tweet and create what I think of as “anecdotal” ratings for the show (there is a such thing as “Twitter ratings,” put out by Twitter and Nielsen, and from the success of OMG-type shows out there on Twitter, such a thing like Twitter ratings matter). The show, like all shows, is geared towards live audiences, because why else is it on television?

The same for How to Get Away with Murder and Scandal. These shows are geared towards live audiences for the live-tweet value and the hashtag value. All shows aspire to have this kind of appeal. Also, popular live shows mean popular advertising space, which means more money for the network. A lot of things hang on live show numbers.

So with that long spiel out of the way, what are the numbers for Sleepy Hollow? In a word, terrible. The show has hovered around 1.0, then went down to 0.8 (live + same day) according to TV By the Numbers, and according to TV Grim Reaper, it’s at 0.56  without any adjustments (0.8 and 0.56 are for the week of this article, the week of Oct. 13). Here’s what the TV Grim Reaper (formerly TV by the Numbers’ original Cancellation Bear) had to say about Sleepy Hollow‘s chances:

Shows that end their third season with 66 episodes, and are produced by the network that airs them, are guaranteed a fourth season by the Syndication Gods.

Unfortunately for Sleepy Hollow, its first two seasons were short ones totaling only 31 episodes (vs. the “normal” 44). Because of that, it’s not guaranteed a season 4, even though Fox produces it.

Sleepy Hollow’s terrible premiere ratings in most cases would put it immediately into “certain cancellation” territory, but given that it’s a third season show produced by Fox, the reaper will bide his time and start it as “likely to be canceled”.

TV by the Numbers’ new Cancellation Bear also has “likely to be cancelled” for Sleepy Hollow. TV Line has also put out their predictions for renewals and cancellations, and while they were more modest in their prediction for Sleepy Hollow, they were still providing a warning to the show with the statement, “Too early to tell.”

Now back to DVR viewings and such. Do DVR ratings matter? On my Twitter feed, there was a lot of discussion about this, and frankly, every fall TV season has a form of this conversation with any show, including another show I loved, Almost Human. I was linked to several articles, which did provide an interesting point of view to the relevance of DVR viewings. The Hollywood Reporter has an article that has CBS’ Les Moonves saying how “overnight ratings are virtually irrelevant now,” citing Elementary as an example of a show that gets 9 million viewers, but brings money that’s worth 14 million viewers a week since 5 million view the show online. He also threw a line in about the “international marketplace,” which will be discussed later.

How Stuff Works has DVR ratings listed as something that has not only changed the game of ratings battles, but advertising battles as well. In short, it’s helped shows stay buoyant.

These Live Plus ratings can make a big difference when a large portion of a show’s fans are watching on their DVRs. In 2007 when Live-Plus-Seven was starting to gain traction with networks, 23 percent of 18 to 49-year-olds watching “The Office” did so on their DVRs within a week of the first run. That’s a big ratings boost just from DVRs, and “The Office” isn’t the only show that’s benefitted from DVR ratings. A January 2011 episode of “Fringe” jumped an entire ratings point based only on Live-Plus-Three data [source: Anders].
The Live Plus ratings system has changed not only how networks report ratings numbers, but advertising as well. DVR viewing is so common now that Nielsen tried lumping its Live-Plus-Same-Day ratings into its live viewing ratings. There were still some Nielsen reports that separated the numbers, but the company began reporting the data all together for its daily releases. The logic was that there’s not much difference between a viewer who watches live and one who starts watching 30 seconds or even 30 minutes after the show has started. Advertisers fought this change because the ratings boosts from Live Plus meant higher advertising rates, and Nielsen now reports live and Live Plus numbers separately.

VOD is also where networks are making their money with advertising and raising their shows’ live ratings, moreso than DVR, since VOD is a whole lot more popular than DVR is nowadays. So it’s not like DVR and VOD viewings don’t count; they most certainly do. But while DVR and VOD viewings are great for PR and such, there are still lots of VOD-watched shows that are getting cancelled, like Almost Human. Fans were very quick to say that the show was getting tons of VOD viewings, which should be a reason for FOX to save it. I don’t know if VOD viewings were high or not, but I do know that live viewings were down. There were other reasons Almost Human didn’t perform, but all of it coincided to the show’s numbers being below what it should have been.

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The same seems to be happening with Minority Report, which already has had its season cut from 13 episodes to 10. That’s a horrible sign, but bad news for the show was expected since it wasn’t performing well at all. I could give an autopsy on why I think the show failed on the storytelling side, but the short of it is that there’s too much that’s not connecting with the viewership out there. It’s coming on after Gotham, meaning it should have a great lead in (similar to how Almost Human came on before the then-well performing Sleepy Hollow). But it’s still floundering.

The Wall Street Journal states that even though networks are quick to point out their L+3 and L+7 numbers, VOD and DVR numbers are down from last year, including numbers for the 18-49 demographic.

According to Nielsen, the combined premiere week prime-time audience including seven days of recorded viewing and four days of video-on-demand for the five broadcast networks–ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and CW–averaged 9.1 million viewrs, a 9% drop from last year’s 10 million viewers.

Walt Disney Co.’s ABC and 21st Century Fox’s Fox have endured the steepest declines so far. ABC averaged 9.2 million viewers during the first week, down 11% from last year’s 10.3 million viewers. Fox tumbled 15% to 5.7 million viewers, compared with 6.9 million last year. Compcast Corp.’s NBC fell 12% to 10.7 million from 12.1 million while CBS was off 2% to 13.1 million to 13.2 million.

And Inverse states something even more damning; that even though Nielsen is working toward becoming more diversified when it comes to counting all sorts of live and digital/VOD/DVR ratings, the networks still primarily rely on Nielsen’s live ratings to see which shows are connecting with audiences (i.e. what shows the network should invest in).

You know whose habits Nielsen can tally pretty well? Older people. You know whose shows are getting canceled because you’re saving them and watching them at odd hours? Yours, quite possibly.

So, while DVR and VOD and digital and any other type of legal viewing platform ratings matter, Nielsen live ratings are still the dominant source for networks’ ratings news. The weight of Nielsen’s live ratings is still more than DVR and VOD put together.

International sales: What I’ve been writing about so far is domestic viewership. But what about international viewership? Does that matter in the life of a show? Yes, to a degree. Again, going back to Almost Human and shows of its ilk, fans have said that it’s doing well overseas, meaning that it should stay on the air. These shows still got canceled. But now that we’re a few years in the future, what do international sales mean now?

It would appear that there’s more of a move towards international sales. In fact, Quantico, starring Bollywood and international superstar Priyanka Chopra, is a show that is primarily targeting international views. The Washington Post states that international sales is affecting “everything from casting, to which shows get renewed, to how networks are trying to roll themselves out in foreign markets.”

Interestingly enough, the article, which was linked to me on Twitter during that conversation I was alluded to above, discusses Sleepy Hollow by name.

A strong international audience for a show produced by a network’s partner studio can also keep a series alive even after the domestic audience for it has slipped. When a reporter asked Fox’s co-presidents, Dana Walden and Gary Newman, whether social media was keeping “Sleepy Hollow” alive, Newman pointed to a very different factor.

“To look at the network business now, independent of delayed viewing and other revenue sources, is taking a pretty limited look at what the network business is,” he said. “The fact that ‘Sleepy’ is owned by the studio, our own studio, gives us an opportunity to give a show like that a little bit more room to try to find itself and connect with an audience, because the show certainly works for the studio internationally…It takes a little bit of the pressure off. It gives us the luxury of trying to find the right time period for it [domestically].”

Some of that sounds like PR-speak, because every head of a studio will point to international sales as a point of success. Case in point: lots of movies that bomb domestically but manage to make back some or all of their money overseas. But making it overseas is also a silver lining to a show that is struggling in the States. Making money back overseas isn’t something to dismiss, since money is money. And the more American TV welcomes international actors, the more TV will have to cater to and depend on international success. Tom Mison, of course, isn’t a Bollywood superstar (at last check, Bollywood’s popularity was Hollywood’s only rival in the moviemaking business). But Mison is a known name in the UK, having starred in Lost in AustenThe Amazing Mrs. Pritchard, Parade’s End and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. It makes sense that FOX would try to market Sleepy Hollow to the international, particularly the UK, audience.

And, as a good-and-bad problem, international TV selling has becoming a big industry for many reasons, states The Hollywood Reporterincluding TV dramas filling the spaces that were usually taken up by movies on TV. But it’s become such a big business that, like all big businesses, it’s expected to reach a saturation point. Basically, international TV sales are up. So if Sleepy Hollow really is doing all that well overseas at this point in the international sales game, then there might be a reason to keep it on air. But if a show is doing well overseas but losing money domestically, is that still a win or is it a loss?

FOX’s support: FOX’s support has been at once extremely encouraging and not enough. FOX did find it in its heart to give the show another chance, due to fan interaction (I think) and, according to the FOX brass above, the international market. However, FOX has also asked the Sleepy Hollow to sink or swim by moving it from Mondays to Thursdays, aka Shonda Rhimes Day, and by not throwing as many advertising dollars to it as they have Empire. The fandom’s constant complaint this season is that FOX hasn’t done enough to promote the show. They probably didn’t have the funds to do so, seeing how Empire has eaten up much of FOX’s production and advertising costs. It takes a lot of money to run and promote a show.

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But there is one thing that FOX might love about Sleepy Hollow, aside from international stuff; the fanbase. One of things I recognized last year during my Sleepy Hollow analyzing is that the contingent of fans the show has created are some of the most ardent and vocal out there. That in itself is valuable to networks nowadays, especially in our Twitter live-tweeting world. A fanbase who will interact every week on Twitter (and then some), that anecdotal rating information I was talking about, is beginning to be just as valuable as Nielsen ratings. Priceconomics writes this, capping off their article on the costs it takes to create and market a show:

The best way to make a hit is to build and nurture a fanbase. The networks of the future–the ones with built-in audiences and distribution systems–should make better use of their ability to do so. Instead of trying to guess at viewers’ reactions, they should tap into them. TV will always depend on hits, but there are far less crazy ways to find them.

Nurturing the fanbase is evident in FOX’s assurance that Season 3 would be a lot closer to Season 1, so much so that they hired more black writers, hired a new showrunner, and were setting up a new center of operations in Atlanta even before the show was officially greenlit for a third season. Even now, Twitter interaction is focusing much more on #Ichabbie, moments with Jenny, and other moments the fans positively responded to in past seasons. The only big issue the fans have right now is that doggone Thursday timeslot.

HOWEVER, other shows have done and are doing well against competing shows. For instance, Empire and black-ish. Both are on the same night and during the same time (Empire stays on for an hour, the last half of that hour is when black-ish airs). But both are killing it in both the anecdotal ratings and actual numerical ratings. The fans are there.

Am I saying the fans aren’t there for Sleepy Hollow. Nope, I’m most certainly not saying that. But what I am saying is that the fans from Season 1 need to come back. The show has had some stumbling blocks, it is true, and those stumbling blocks have made it have the low numbers it does have in Season 3. But the word needs to get stronger that the show is back to its Season 1 magic. It seems like that is happening too slowly, at least for my liking.

My final thoughts: To wrap all of this up, here are my thoughts. One, I do think that digital/DVR/VOD ratings matter to a degree, for many reasons, both good and nefarious. “Good” in that it can prove that there is an audience for a show. “Nefarious” in that it can allow TV PR to make creative math with the numbers to prove to the world that a failing show is still working. But regardless of the reasons, these ratings are important. However, they still can’t compare to the power there is in live audience viewing. The idea that TV isn’t meant for live-viewing anymore is something that doesn’t add up in my mind, since the goal for every TV show is to have high live TV viewing. The other ratings are just boons or add-ons, and in a worst-case scenario, these non-live ratings are like safety nets. High live TV viewing means there’s high interest, which, for advertisers looking for a good space to place an ad, means there’s a good chance their product will get the right kind of promotion. Are more networks gearing towards advertising through digital markets? Sure. Are there tons of people watching stuff without a TV? Of course (including me). But are live TV ratings dead? Not by a long shot. Live TV ratings matters just as much as they did years ago.

Second, I think that it’s true that Sleepy Hollow is on a slippery slope, numbers-wise. But I also think that the show is in a unique and interesting position. FOX saved the show, and continues to show relative interest in the show, for a lot of reasons, the main ones being international money and the fanbase. FOX seems to have a long game in store for Sleepy Hollow, but it seems to be contingent on the fervor of the fanbase. And to me, doing international business would be a lot more powerful if the show was doing well in its country of origin. To rely on international viewers to keep a domestic show afloat is a lot for me to swallow. If the show was doing well on our shores, too, then it’d seem like international money would be seen as a boon, not as a way to keep the show on the air.

Third, what all of this boils down to is getting the domestic numbers up. There can be a lot of ways to interpret the numbers and ramifications and whatnot, but at the end of the day, that Nielsen live number counts a whole lot. If the show had higher numbers, there wouldn’t even be discussion about how well the show is doing internationally or how many people are watching on DVR. If it was doing well live, that’d be it. So with that said, I’ll offer a ray of hope.

I could be wrong, but my hunch is that Sleepy Hollow‘s ratings have the chance to slowly rise as we head towards the midseason. Of course, that’s dependent on how many fans come back to the show. If the ratings can rise to a respectable point to the midseason, then there might be a chance for the show to come back for a fourth season. Or, since FOX might want to recoup the money it put into the show after buying it (because it does produce it now), FOX might want to get Sleepy Hollow to get that Season 4 guaranteed syndication, meaning that it could sell the show’s episodes to other markets (like how FOX, and Time Warner’s TBS and Cartoon Network air Family Guy and how Cartoon Network also airs FOX’s Bob’s Burgers). Either way, I don’t see Sleepy Hollow as dead in the water yet. To me, its too early to tell about the show’s fate since FOX’s interest means a lot, but I also see it as having a dire future if things keep going south.

What are your thoughts? Do you agree or do you think I’m henny-pennying? Give your opinions below!

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SLEEPY HOLLOW: Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) in the “Blood & Fear” episode of SLEEPY HOLLOW airing Thursday, Oct. 15 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2015 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Tina Rowden/FOX