Coming Together On COMMUNITY: The Nature of TV Ratings, Fandom & Storytelling

Ben Umstead, East Coast Editor
This article is about the TV show Community. It is about the possibility of its cancellation. Community is a show I fiercely love. This will not be a rant. Writing this is largely for the purpose of allying my own sense of well-being with my fellow fans as we move into a time when the show's future is uncertain.

This past Monday, NBC announced their mid-season schedule sans Community. The network stated that all 22 episodes of the 3rd season would be filmed and would air. The questions now are when will they air, and will that be the end of its run? Well, we'll get to that in a bit, but first...

If you're unfamiliar with Community, the following two hundred or so words will be my sales pitch to you.

The basic premise is this: seven community college students of various creeds, ages and races form a study group and begin the long road to true friendship. It may sound like a classic (and hokey) TV premise, but where creator and showrunner Dan Harmon, his writers and cast, go each week is anything but typical. Community constantly challenges and champions old-school television archetypes. The season 2 episode 'Critical Film Studies' finds the pop-culture obsessed Abed setting up a dinner with his friend Jeff to mirror My Dinner With Andre because he can only relater to his friend by using the film as a springboard to express his feelings. Community is a show that dips into Joseph Campbell levels of pathos as much as it rides the meta-humor wagon with glee. It is a show that has payed homage to spaghetti westerns, created a parallel universe version of Doctor Who, coolly laid forth noir infused subplots, featured Raiders of the Lost Ark dioramas, stop-motion Christmases, Levar Burton and... well, you get the idea. Community is an eclectic, sometimes even manic show in style and execution; as silly as it is somber, and yet it all feels of the same piece. Everything coalesces because of the chemistry and camaraderie of the cast. In short: Community is a wildly inventive and unique show made by honest-to-god geeks. It is certainly one of the Twitch-iest offerings currently on air.

Okay then... It is no secret that of the four major networks in America, NBC has been in last place for a long time. They've been unable to carry a drama in years, their once mighty Thursday night block of comedies, though intact, does not draw the same crowds that shows like Friends and Seinfeld did in the mid-late 90s.

And here's the thing... we no longer live in a time where people watch television. Sure, people watch "TV shows", but the options for viewing are incredibly varied. I'm sure most of you know this (I'm near positive I'm preaching to the choir): We now live in a consumer on-demand culture where the success of a show should not solely be based on how many people watch the original television broadcast. Alas, in large part it still does, and this won't change anytime soon. It will change, but like with most things in the entertainment industry, they will move towards this with all the crankiness and creakiness of an old man and newborn combined.

Under the current Nielsen ratings system which does not initially include DVR plays (and forget NBC.com or Hulu here!), Community averages around 3.5 million viewers per week with an ad share of 1.5 in the key demographic of adults 18-49. Paltry ratings many would say. And by comparison to the other three majors, they are, especially when sizing Community up against 8pm time-slot competitor The Big Bang Theory: a CBS juggernaut which pulls in 12 million plus viewers per week. But on NBC Community is right in the middle (although the lowest of their half-hours) and when sizing it up to most cable fare (The Walking Dead excluded), very solid numbers. For more home turf perspective NBC recently canceled freshman shows, Free Agents & The Playboy Club -- shows that averaged around the same number of viewers and with ad shares hovering around a 1.0 . So why is NBC only putting Community on hiatus and not canceling it outright?

With the mid-season return of 30 Rock and the Chelsea Handler produced newbie Are You There, Chelsea? NBC will have seven half-hour comedies, one shy of eight. If they had eight they could have two nights of 8pm-10pm programming locked. But with seven, one of these shows has to either get shelved or canceled. And since Community is the lowest rated of these, and more costly to produce than something like the multi-camera shot Whitney, this makes some sense. NBC's reasoning is probably this: If the Handler show flops, they can easily put Community back on the schedule with no real fuss. Now if the Handler show nets a sizable audience then Community is most likely gone. But there is also this... the show's production company Sony, could very well convince NBC to inch the show along into season 4, where it would hit that sweet syndication spot -- somewhere between 88 & 100 episodes -- and to the benefit of the show's staff and fans, finish out the story in a more proper fashion. Even from a business standpoint this seems like the safest, most sensible, and rewarding road to take. While more online-friendly options are taking shape, television syndication is still a very viable revenue stream. Now is this a likely option for Community? I just don't know. You'd think NBC would act from a place of logic, especially when it means more money in the long run, but when you're a network scrambling for any last scrap of ratings morsels, you do tend to act like a headless chicken (or peacock). And truth be told, NBC has been, up to this point, very kind and patient towards Community. Far more so than say Fox would have been.

Rallying in support of a beloved but low-rated show isn't anything new, in fact, it's kind of a staple in geek culture. NBC may be biding time, but as fans, and more importantly as consumers, we do not have to sit here idly and twiddle our thumbs. Continue to passionately talk about the show; encourage folks to catch up during the winter hiatus, either through iTunes or Amazon downloads or Netflix. Heck, be old fashioned and buy the DVDs; share them with friends and family; buy them as gifts. When that moment comes for the show's return (and they will finish this season out), perhaps there will then be an enthused crop of new viewers, and a network willing to produce a fourth season. And when it comes to creative, grassroots inspired ways to save our show, well it looks like we're already "streets ahead" with open letters, petitions, twitter/twibbon and video campaigns.

To wrap up I'd like to address the curious reader who has never seen the show. To you, I'd simply like to say: watch tonight's episode -- an episode that Harmon just today called "the least accessible, least marketable episode in [the show's] alienating history!" It all goes down at 8pm, folks. I guarantee if you like Twitch, you'll find something to like on Community.

And now...
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