Defining a "hit" TV show used to be so easy: Just look at the ratings.
Not so much these days. With hundreds of series available, it's impossible to figure out. NBC's "Blindspot" was the most-watched new show of the fall. But everyone is talking about Netflix's "Making a Murderer," so how does that compare, especially as Netflix won't release numbers? And CW's "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" gets low ratings, but its star just won a Golden Globe, and critics love the show, so does that qualify as a success anyway?
The honest answer: We have no idea. However, we felt better after attending last week's RealScreen Summit — an annual conference for reality TV and nonfiction producers in Washington — because it turns out that TV executives are struggling with the same questions.
Things have changed quite drastically in the past several years, one panel of experts said. Don Robert, senior vice president of research at A&E, said there are no longer panicked phone calls at 4 p.m. every day when the cable ratings come in. After all, the overnight viewer numbers are not the "end-all, be-all that they used to be."
Still, they're important. Though overnight numbers don't count the total audience that will be factored in with DVR and on-demand or those streaming on their iPad, execs can still reliably project what an audience will be overall.
The notable — and crucial — piece of information not available in numerical data? "What you can't tell is how passionate people are," Robert said.
Ah, passion — the elusive element of TV that networks are still trying to turn into a profit. Research departments try: They can look at tweets, or Facebook posts, or measure exactly how many minutes someone watches a program. For example, Robert found that shows such as "The Walking Dead," "Doctor Who" and "Bad Girls Club" (really) all have a very high percentage of minutes viewed, around 80 percent. That means viewers are more invested, which networks and advertisers love.
At the same time, shows that don't have as high a percentage of minutes viewed (HGTV's "House Hunters" and E!'s "Royals," which Robert says rank in the mid-50 percent) can also be valuable, because they do well in repeats — also important to advertisers.
Shows can also prove their worth in other ways. Keith Friedenberg, an executive vice president at the WME/IMG agency, used the example of "Keeping Up With the Kardashians." The reality franchise makes up a third of E!'s schedule. Even if it doesn't get as many viewers as E! would like, the network still deems it a smash — because success can be measured in other ways, such as spin-offs (FYI's recently-launched "Kocktails With Khloe") along with Kim Kardashian's game app and endorsement deals. As the saying goes in Hollywood, Freidenberg said, you would "rather be No. 2 and make money than No. 1 and lose money."
Kelly Abcarian, a senior vice president at Nielsen, noted that despite what you may have read, TV audience viewership is at an all-time high.
"The glamorous headline is that TV is dead, because that's what everyone wants to write about," she said. "When you look at it, TV is far from dead ... no other medium (has) that demographic reach across all audiences."