It's the TV executive's version of an age-old theological quandary: If you think counting the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin is tough, try measuring buzz.
Television networks are furiously working their spreadsheets these days, trying to figure out precisely how much original programming they need to attract an audience. And in the United States, one of the country's largest program carriers is making a multimillion-dollar bet that actual viewers are more important than hype.
Because here's a dirty secret of the golden age of television we're in right now: Most of it is a marketing ploy.
That is especially important to remember as an increasing number of TV networks make their programs available on other platforms and mobile services. After all, if you can buy an episode of Breaking Bad on iTunes and watch it on your phone on the subway as you head in to the office, why would you bother paying a monthly fee to Rogers or Bell to get the cable channel AMC, whose programming consists mainly of old movies and TV shows?
The old certainties about programming are crashing against the new economic realities in the United States because almost two months ago the TV satellite provider Dish Network pushed four cable channels owned by AMC Networks off its service: 14 million viewers lost access to AMC, WE tv and the U.S. versions of the film channels IFC and Sundance. Dish said subscribers simply were not watching the networks, and that viewers were happy to lose those channels to save a little money, especially when they still had so many other options. Dish replaced AMC with HDNet, a less-expensive service that shows movies in a commercial-free format.
After AMC launched a public-relations campaign that sent zombies wandering around the streets of New York (a nod to the undead in its hit show The Walking Dead), Dish chairman Charles Ergen scoffed: "Our customers are not looking at zombies in New York City. They live in farms and ranches."
There are other elements in the tiff, including a long-running lawsuit that many observers believe is the real reason Dish is unhappy with AMC.
Dish was also upset that AMC was making its content available on iTunes.
The hard truth is that AMC's viewership on the traditional TV platform does not match its buzz. Sure, Mad Men has taken home 15 Emmy Awards since it launched in 2007, and it is nominated for 17 more going into next month's ceremonies. But its Sunday-night viewership averages in the neighbourhood of only two million. The same is true of The Newsroom, HBO's heavily hyped Aaron Sorkin drama. Girls, HBO's other show that had people buzzing this year, regularly pulled in fewer than one million viewers in its first weekly airings.
HBO long ago proved the canniness of this strategy. Subscribers do not really care if they watch the shows on HBO; merely by being subscribers, they feel like they belong to a special club. The channel's marketing reflect that: For years, it boasted: "It's not TV. It's HBO."
Now, all of the cable channels making original programming are using a watered-down version of the same approach.
But with the flood of channels and platforms and viewing options these days, the Dish chairman has a point: There is always something to watch, especially with video-on-demand services such as Hulu, a one-stop shop for U.S. viewers that offers shows from owners NBC, Fox and ABC, and others (including CBC).
But here's an interesting twist: Even the TV aggregators such as Hulu and Netflix are feeling the pressure to get into the game of original content. Netflix aired an original miniseries, Lilyhammer, this year, and producers there are now in the midst of creating two other shows: House of Cards, a political drama starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, and the highly anticipated return of Fox's cult hit Arrested Development. (In a cross-promotional twist, the Hollywood news blog The Wrap reported on Tuesday that John Slattery, who plays Roger Sterling on Mad Men, will appear in multiple episodes of Arrested Development.)
"One way to think of originals is in terms of brand halo," Netflix chief executive officer Reed Hastings explained in a letter to shareholders when the company reported its first-quarter earnings in April. "If we are able to generate critical success for our originals, it will elevate our consumer brand and drive incremental members to the service."
It's a simple formula for success: Critical acclaim leads to buzz, which leads to interest in your channel, which leads to demands for the cable or satellite company to carry it, which leads to profit. But now, with viewers and programmers running madly off in all directions, it is anybody's guess how long the old formula will last.