Over the past year or so, I’ve engaged with what I would call a friendly feud with the Cancellation Bear, the—as far as we know—fictional mascot of ratings site TV By The Numbers. In truth, I have no substantive beef with the Bear or its overlords as individuals, but the Bear and I disagree on a number of issues tied to how ratings are reported and enjoy the occasional repartee. I will admit that it’s a silly thing, filled with wildly exaggerated responses—reflected in this Wanted poster—and certainly among the simpler, more juvenile pleasures one can partake in.
However, over the past year, my feud with @TheCancelBear has been tinged with a degree of legitimate concern for the state of the discourse. Originally, the feud emerged from an ambivalent relationship with the site and its approach to ratings reporting. The site’s role in making ratings data both highly visible and highly accessible makes it a valuable tool for teaching about and researching the television industry, but the Cancellation Bear represents the site’s other role: actively inciting fear and uncertainty among fans of series struggling in the ratings in an effort to both drive traffic and—especially in the past two years—crusade against what they see as “fan excuses” that have no traction compared to their sure-fire prognostications. The former has helped make it possible for a “ratings culture” to exist; the latter has made that “ratings culture” unnecessarily combative and unpleasant.
This ambivalence resulted in a rather epic conversation myself and Tyler Dinucci had with a representative of the site last year. Based on a consideration of Last Resort’s ratings, the conversation wasn’t really about the fate of Last Resort (and I’m not just saying that because I was on the side of optimism and the series was canceled after 13 episodes). The conversation was actually about how TV By The Numbers frames its analysis of ratings not simply as good on its own merits, but rather uses the Cancellation Bear as a front behind which it can insult “desperate fans” who would choose to look on the bright side.
More troll-like than ursine, the Cancellation Bear is the site’s Id, framing the site’s largely measured—and unquestionably educated—predictions through the contempt the site’s creators seem to have for many of their readers and fellow reporters/journalists; it’s a frame that risks turning TV By The Numbers into a disruptive force within ratings culture, more interested in loudly performing its distinction than participating in a meaningful discourse central to TV’s future.
The Cancellation Bear is built around a fairly innocuous metaphor and a logical read on how the television industry works. It’s a metaphor that frames series on the same broadcast network against one another, being chased by a bear: in order to survive, a show doesn’t need to outrun the bear, but simply needs to outrun the other shows the bear will stop to devour first. It’s built around the relativity of television ratings, which TV By The Numbers argues is best considered within—rather than between—individual broadcast networks. The site uses this logic—and current and historical ratings data and patterns—to continually keep track of whether shows are safe, on the bubble, or “certain to be canceled” in each new television season through the Renew/Cancel index.
My objection to the Cancellation Bear is not about whether the Bear is right or wrong when it predicts which shows are “certain” to be canceled. It’s not even about whether it’s possible for anyone outside of the closed loop of broadcast television can ever speak with certainty about network decision making on the level the Cancellation Bear chooses to (a point we disagree on, but a point where their record makes such claims viable in and of themselves). Rather, it’s the underlying condescension within that certainty: rather than simply proving its authority by offering comprehensive and conclusive predictions, TV By The Numbers has used the Cancellation Bear to pronounce its superiority above anyone else who deigns to analyze television ratings.
While fans make “excuses”—represented by the “Fan Excuse Bingo” game—when they choose to emphasize strong Live+7 DVR lifts or the lack of lead-in support, the Cancellation Bear’s different reading of the same basic data is—based on their enlightened perspective—an inherently more valid interpretation. When other journalists like Vulture’s Joe Adalian offer even a shred of optimism about low-performing shows that the Bear has designated certain to be canceled, they are insulted by the Bear and written off as industry stooges unwilling to tell truth to power at the risk of burning bridges with publicists.
Shortly after the Cancellation Bear went after Adalian, the show in question—NBC’s Ironside—was canceled. The Bear took this as vindication, but the issue at stake was never a disagreement over the likely future of Ironside when it was drawing a 1.1 rating. It was over a single piece of tweeted language—“hanging tough”—that the Cancellation Bear latched onto as evidence of what separates their anti-establishment philosophy from the clueless mendacity of the “Hollywood suck-ups” analyzing ratings elsewhere. Forget that Adalian neither suggested Ironside’s ratings were good nor defended the series’ future prospects beyond noting that stabilizing is better than falling further; what matters is that the Cancellation Bear is not to be associated with—to quote one of its followers—those who “suck up to masked execs for minor casting scoops.”
On the one hand, I find it difficult to take this anti-establishment narrative seriously when the Cancellation Bear spouts this rhetoric while the majority of the site’s content is reprinted press releases directly from networks and channels. However, on the other hand, even if we accept the site’s disinterest in direct engagement with the industry as a major point of differentiation, I don’t understand how not making bold, antagonistic predictions based on ratings data makes someone a “suck-up.” Adalian has since written a piece analyzing the prospect of 11 shows that remain on the bubble; the only difference from TV By The Numbers’ philosophy is that he poses his title as a question rather than a statement or provocation, reflecting the industrial uncertainty the Bear believes it has conquered.
Let’s be clear: TV By The Numbers is entitled to its predictions, and its opinions, but I’m not convinced they’re entitled to dismiss the opinions of others. In this piece on Live+7 ratings, there’s a basic truth that we can’t overvalue something that has no determined value, and a rightful acknowledgment that networks are ascribing value to Live+7 ratings in press releases without a clear picture of how this value translates back into network decision-making. But the piece—written by Bill Gorman, who to my understanding plays the role of the Cancellation Bear on Twitter—uses its Star Wars analogy to position those who report those numbers as dupes, when in most cases they’re simply curious about tracking changing patterns of TV viewership. It’s a curiosity that responds to networks continually adjusting to understand what it means for a television show to be successful, and a curiosity that used to drive TV By The Numbers’ use of ratings data to predict the future of broadcast television series.
Instead, bolstered by the success of its curiosity in previous years, the Cancellation Bear functions as an antagonist for reasons I don’t understand. When you are running a site that analyzes statistical patterns in conjunction with industrial context and has a reputation for doing it well, what is the point of dismissing those who interpret that data differently? When that industry is an evolving entity where logics are both obscured behind closed doors and changing on a year-to-year basis, why so vociferously perform one’s superiority as opposed to letting your impressive record speak for itself? When you have a site that wants to serve as a resource for rabid television fans, why present a persona that actively insults those fans for allowing their affect to inform their interpretation of data that’s open to interpretation?
The answer to these questions is that it’s a business model that works for them, one built on antagonizing and building fear among fanbases in order for them to be hitting refresh on the site every morning waiting for that week’s ratings on pins and needles about their show’s fate (with Chuck and Fringe cited by the Bear as huge traffic sources that helped build the site’s reputation). It’s also because it’s cultivated a specific ratings culture that continually feeds the bear, validating its brave stance against “PR Jedi Mind Tricks” by supporting the Bear’s willingness to “tell it like it is.” I found out this morning, for example, that my objections to the Bear mean I “Prefer to read delusional sycophants to the realistic voice of the @TheCancelBear” and prove academics live “in a white tower far away from reality.” It’s here where I almost think of the site as ratings culture’s Fox News, the Cancellation Bear reflecting Bill O’Reilly and others’ strident belief that they are the only ones who know how to serve the public interest, and who spread that belief onto their viewers/readers.
I should acknowledge that such a comparison is inherently unfair to TV By The Numbers (if not the Cancellation Bear). The basic analysis the site offers, unlike the “fair and balanced” coverage of Fox News, is at its core an interesting and often effective way to understand the TV industry. Its attempt to turn an unscientific process into a science is admirable if also foolhardy, an exercise that makes visible the moving target of televisual success in an era where that target is moving faster than ever before. Not unlike how Nate Silver’s methods bring to life the intricate multitudes of electoral polling, TV By The Numbers is in a position to serve as a key site in which the Nielsen ratings can be demystified (or, rather, mystified within the proper context, given that mysticism often seems the central force behind the Nielsen metrics).
So why does it need the Cancellation Bear? It’s possible that much as I enjoy my juvenile feud with the Bear, the Bear enjoys its juvenile feuds with CW viewers and “Hollywood suck-ups,” but I would argue there are consequences that come from this. If I’m telling students to go to TV By The Numbers as the most comprehensive database for ratings information, I’m also telling them to go to a space where fan affect is ridiculed and where journalists are claiming absolute authority over a practice—interpreting ratings—that we teach students is continually under negotiation. As much as the Cancellation Bear’s stated goal— speaking truth within a system often driven by spin and misinformation—reflects an important lesson about the television industry (one that it often, between snarkier remarks, explains to people on Twitter in a more measured fashion that absolutely has value), the way it has tried to declare itself the arbiter of what counts as truth is destructive, and entirely unnecessary to the site’s future success.
I am not against the Cancellation Bear because it unfairly judges the success of shows that haven’t yet found their feet—they can judge whatever they want. I am also not against the Cancellation Bear because it refuses to count metrics like Live+7, because they’re entitled to their own interpretive lens. I am against the Cancellation Bear because it obscures the site’s utility by drowning it in ugly hubris, and because it has helped turn “ratings culture” into a rabid game of provocation instead of a meaningful analytical space. Ratings can be interesting, compelling, and useful without the need for an imaginary bear to chase after low-rated series, just as patience can be as productive an analytical strategy as swift judgment; it is my hope that, despite the Cancellation Bear’s existence implying otherwise, we’ll remember this as ratings culture continues to evolve both inside and outside TV By The Numbers’ ursine metaphor.