The television docudrama Cosmos: A Space-time Odyssey is in free-fall, having dropped in the ratings for the third straight week after a somewhat tepid debut. TV By the Numbers reports that only 3.91 million people watched the fourth episode of the series, down from (an already mediocre) 5.77 million who watched the pilot.
This might seem like a problem for Fox Entertainment. After all, it’s devoting timeslots on multiple channels to the show. The company won’t disclose exactly what the production cost, but it had to be a pretty penny – the New York Times reports the network tapped over a dozen other companies just to handle the visual effects.
You could be forgiven for thinking the executives are banging their foreheads on their desks right about now over the huge risk they took.
But you’d be wrong.
The Crab Nebula, the remnants of a supernova, featured prominently in the fourth episode of Cosmos - A Spacetime Oddysey. Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University). Some rights reserved.
Chances are that the ratings mean very little. Take the original Cosmos, hosted by astronomer Carl Sagan and aired by PBS. It may have been one of public television’s most successful series, but no one really knows how many people watched the show when it was first broadcast. PBS didn't subscribe to full Nielsen ratings reports until as late as 2009, in an effort to justify its worth to underwriters.
What PBS did do was rerun the series constantly, making deals to show it on stations around the planet. Many, many more people have seen it in one of these subsequent broadcasts, on DVD or online than saw the episodes when they went live for the first time.
And that was in the age of appointment viewing. Fox knows the youngish (and probably tech-savvy) audience to which the reboot is directed doesn’t feel the need to watch anything live anymore. Nielsen ratings generally only capture that initial viewing. If you watched Cosmos via DVR, on Hulu, or through any of the myriad other venues and times it's available, you won't be counted.
Ratings are still important for a network's ad revenues, of course. To that end, Fox probably is losing out a little by putting Cosmos in prime time and pushing it so hard.
But Fox always expected different kinds of benefits from Cosmos. As far back as 2012, head of entertainment Kevin Reilly told Forbes that the show was “not going to be the biggest money earner. But it could have a cultural impact.”
Cosmos has been a headline-maker in the press now for a few years. Heavily promoting a science-themed show like Cosmos is likely to challenge long-running perceptions, perpetuated mainly by the national news division, that Fox is anti-science. That can help it retain the younger and more liberal audiences that might otherwise be put off from tuning into Fox altogether because of Fox News. It is indeed about changing the conversation.
Fox carefully crafted its strategy to maximize this cultural impact while minimizing corporate risk. Seth MacFarlane, the show's executive producer, already has a proven record of creating successful TV shows (think Family Guy). Host Neil deGrasse Tyson was perhaps the best-known science communicator in the world long before he signed onto the project.
The Cosmos imprimatur itself already carries a huge amount of clout that guaranteed Fox an enthusiastic fan base.
These three factors alone demonstrate how modern media conglomerates can appear to be taking a big risk when, in fact, much of the risk has already been taken by others. Tyson built his reputation through many years of hard work and deft media exposure. He and MacFarlane are known quantities, each with his own fans and followers.
It was PBS, not Fox, that took the most risk with Cosmos when it spent millions of dollars to film the original series in the late 1970s. It is only now that its success is proven that Fox has appropriated it.
This kind of risk reduction through appropriation is how all successful media conglomerates operate. It's why Disney acquired Pixar. It's why Facebook wanted Instagram. It's why the film industry has been producing an unending stream of films about popular comic book heroes.
To be fair, this is usually a reciprocal relationship. Start-ups want to be acquired – few aim to compete directly against established players (Fox itself was one of the rare exceptions to this rule, when it went up against the “big three” networks in the 1980s).
And no bet, no matter how well hedged, is entirely without risk.
Overall, this model works well for media oligopolies. Fox, for instance, has been able to promote what looks like an innovative initiative while keeping any actual danger to the company at a minimum. Even if Cosmos had been a complete flop, it wouldn't have made a dent in the conglomerate's long-term outlook.
There's another reward for Fox in this deal, as well. As a broadcaster using public airwaves, Fox must remain in the Federal Communication Commission's good graces in order to maintain its broadcast license. The network was briefly a target of calls to revoke that license in 2012, after parent company News Corp. was caught up in a U.K. phone hacking scandal. Though the FCC almost never denies a license renewal, Fox has every reason to demonstrate that it is using its privilege for the public good. How better to do that than to emulate a show created by public broadcasters?
Whether Cosmos ultimately meets any of these goals remains to be seen. Whatever happens, though, the last place anyone should be looking for answers is in the ratings.