Monday, May 21, 2012

Nielsen ratings signal doom for Sing Off
as fans rally to save Season 4

Street Corner Symphony, a former competitor of The Sing-Off, is just one of the many groups and individuals who have have helped to spearhead the #SaveTheSingOff campaign by creating a website as well as Facebook and twitter pages.

On Sunday May 13 around 2 p.m., the news broke on @mcbc's twitter page that The Sing-Off television show featuring a cappella singing groups competing for a record contract was not on NBC's upcoming fall schedule, where it had run for three seasons.
    For #acappella people ... BREAKING ... #TheSingOff not on the NBC fall schedule. A two-hour #Voice takes its place.
A minute later, it was revealed that the show also would not enter midseason:
    Also, #TheSingOff is not slated for a midseason run. Looks to be effectively canceled.
For a normal television show, not appearing on a regular schedule is the kiss of death. Not so for The Sing-Off, which began as a post-season filler, airing as a 2-hour 4-day show in December 2009 and returning in the same slot for 5 days in 2010 for a second season, happily resulting in unexpectedly high ratings. Confident that a cappella was on a roll, NBC extended the run in Season 3, giving The Sing-Off its very own primetime slot on Monday nights from 8 to 10 p.m. Sadly, ratings suffered and the show has not been renewed. Though currently not slated to run at all, it is a logical transition for the show to return to its roots as a short post-season 5-to-6 episode series, running during December when musical holiday specials are quite popular.

Sure enough, an hour later, @mcbc tweeted:
    Text from a NBC bud ... OH "#TheSingOff may return for a brief post-Thanksgiving run. Happy Mother's Day." #acappella

Fans formulate a #SaveTheSingOff campaign

By noon on Monday, May 14, word began to spread like wildfire amidst the tightly knit a cappella community.

Nick Lachey was the first to make note of the situation, tweeting from his @NickSLachey account that he was disappointed:
    obviously bummed to hear that #singoff is not going to come back to @nbc this year. thanks to everyone who made the show so much fun to do!!
Just after 2 p.m., Sara D. (@wtrfallprincess), a fan and Straight No Chaser a cappella blogger, posted on her twitter account:
    Save @TheSingOff!!! Bring it back, @NBC! #SaveTheSingOff
thereby creating the twitter hashtag, #SaveTheSingOff, which took off like wildfire, and was retweeted dozens of times.

Judge Shawn Stockman picked up the hashtag, retweeting it around 6 p.m. that night, quickly followed by judge Ben Folds, then host Nick Lachey, and new judge Sara Barielles around 9 p.m. Fans retweeted hundreds of times, causing the hashtag to trend in both Seattle, WA and Athens, GA that Monday night.

That evening, members of Street Corner Symphony announced that they had purchased the domain: and launched a simple website, also creating Facebook and twitter accounts for SaveTheSingOff.

By 7 p.m, fan Dan St. John had launched a petition via and publicized it on both his twitter (@spicepirate00) and Facebook Sing-Off fan pages. [ Click here to sign the online petition. ]

And so began an all out multi-media social network grassroots campaign to "Save The Sing Off!"

It all comes down to numbers

Why so much fuss over yet another musical competition TV show? Don't we have enough of those out there already?


The Sing-Off is unique in that competitors must perform a cappella, meaning "without accompaniment." No instruments or tracks are used. Choral pedals, autotune, lip-syncing and other fakery are prohibited. Performers must stand alone on their own merits, singing into microphones on stage.

All that being said, networks like NBC are really only interested in the bottom line of dollar signs, not feeling groovy about presenting vocal music in its purest form. They want to sell commercial time for top dollar, and to do that, they need high-rating hits.

According to the Nielsen ratings, the industry standard for monitoring TV viewership, the two-hour Sing-Off only drew between 3.89 and 6.43 million viewers to watch NBC each hour on Monday nights from September 19 through December 5, 2011, unfortunately placing it last behind all of the other major networks of ABC, CBS, and FOX, winning out only over the CW.

It's no wonder. It was pitted against top ranked Dancing with the Stars (14.71 to 20.04 million viewers) on ABC and the powerblock of How I Met Your Mother (7.99 to 11.70 million viewers) and Two and I Half Men on CBS, which was enjoying a field day of increased ratings (9.69 to 27.76 million viewers) after everyone tuned in to see how Ashton Kutcher would do replacing the off-kilter-gone-bonkers Charlie Sheen. When the season premiere of House aired on FOX at 9 p.m. on Oct. 3 (5.85 to 9.77 million viewers), The Sing-Off did not stand a chance. [ Nielsen ratings published daily by: ]

On October 10, only four shows into the season, The Playboy Club, which had been scheduled to run on NBC after The Sing-Off and might draw viewers who tune in early, was replaced with an even lower rating Prime Suspect due to public criticism that The Playboy Club television show was too racy. The problem wasn't the show – it was a great, well-written and artfully produced drama, and less sexually charged than many daytime soap operas. I suspect that the campaign against The Playboy Club was probably spearheaded by the competition: Castle on ABC and a revamping of Hawaii Five-O on CBS, each used to taking the lion's share of viewers. Prime Suspect and Rock Center, which replaced Prime Suspect and debuted on October 31 on NBC, both also failed to garner many viewers.

Next fall, NBC will take a gamble and move their hit show The Voice to Mondays, paired with a new show, Revolution. Fortunately for them, Dr. House is on his way out, but I still wish them luck -- they'll need it. [Schedule grid by Entertainment Weekly.]

Who is this Nielsen and why doesn't he like my favorite shows?

The Nielsen ratings, which were first utilized by the television industry in 1950 when Milton Berle ruled the roost on the Texaco Star Theater, are kind of a bunch of hooey when you think about it, and should probably not be given so much gravity given the manner in which data is currently extrapolated. First, Nielsen only samples "about 20,000" households out of the 114 million TV viewing households across the United States. That's a mere .0175 percent, one in 5,700 households. These numbers are then multiplied by that area's population, with the assumption that if John Q Smith's family is watching Survivor on Wednesday night, so is everyone living in their 5700 neighbors' homes. [ source: The Nielsen Company Marketing video: Nielsen Ratings 101: Designing the Sample ]

The late Arthur C. Nielsen, Jr. defended the model:
    "I try to explain how sampling works. Next time you have to go to the doctor and he wants to take a little blood, tell 'em you don't believe in sampling. Take it all."
However, even Nielsen recognizes that households, unlike blood, are not homogenous. Juan Mendizabal, SVP Field operations of Nielsen explains:
    "No two homes are alike. That's why we have to have such a comprehensive training program,"
[ source: The Nielsen Company marketing video: Nielsen Ratings 101: Introduction video ]

Within the United States, Nielsen measures television audiences in 210 local markets [ source: Nielsen's December 31, 2011 annual report ] consisting of large metropolitan population centers [ list of local markets published by zap2it ]. This suggests that individuals living in smaller cities, towns, and rural areas are not being properly represented. It's unclear who is and who is not being tracked. For instance, is Chapel Hill, NC monitored? It is a major college town with a huge transient student population, but only a small number of permanent residents. What about the many vacation resorts, such as Disney World here in Orlando? I personally catch up on a lot of TV while relaxing on vacation.

In order to increase the sample pool, Nielsen also sends out approximately 2 million weekly paper diaries during sweeps months to be kept by people living in smaller areas (I actually was once the recipient of one of these). However, these figures are not shown on the daily ratings charts, because the paper diaries must be filled out, mailed in, and then processed. Only figures from the electronic monitoring devices installed in the 20,000 households nationwide are tabulated in the daily ratings published each morning after a show airs.

Though Nielsen now enlists modern high tech equipment to analyze viewership on all forms of media including televisions, on-demand, online, and personal handheld devices for up to three days after a show first airs, Nielsen is still only able to sample a tiny portion of the actual viewing audience – about half of those with electronic meters, or 10,000 households. One wonders why, with all the latest digital technology available, they don't simply work out a deal with the cable and satellite providers who are now capable of monitoring the viewership of their own customers. [ source: The Nielsen Company marketing video: Nielsen Cross-Platform Homes - Extended Screen Ratings ]

It is also questionable how many students are being monitored. With a show like The Sing-Off, featuring primarily college and university a cappella groups, I imagine that students are a huge percentage of their viewership and that this group is being underrepresented by the Nielsen ratings.

In addition, Nielsen's extrapolated ratings are not audited by an external source – no one really knows how accurate they are.

The Sing-Off "Shing-ed" 
in the short season

In previous Seasons 1 and 2 during 2009 and 2010, The Sing-Off was a post-season filler airing in December primarily against reruns and holiday specials being shown on other major networks. Ratings were much higher and grew from one year to the next. The fast pace of seeing the show unfold in two to three weeks time seemed to keep viewers interested enough to tune in each day the show aired.

In its debut in 2009, the two-hour 8 to 10 p.m. show ran on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday December 14 through 16, culminating in a Monday finale on December 21 the following week. Hourly ratings ranged from 6.31 to 7.43 million viewers and fans voiced that they were pleased with the new technical singing terms they were learning, such as 'Shing,' jokingly coined by Judge Ben Folds. This placed NBC in a respectable second place behind CBS in the Nielsen ratings.

In 2010, The Sing-Off moved to Monday and Wednesday and ran for two-and-a-half weeks, from December 6 to December 20. The show had gained momentum over the previous year with a dedicated fan following. Ratings improved, with a low at a respectable 6.67 million viewers and a soaring high of 9.66 million viewers per hour. The show usually placed second behind CBS, though it did fall to third behind ABC during one episode. However, it actually ranked in first place during its finale on December 20. It was the little show that could!

Why Season 3 failed

Although The Sing-Off could have effectively warranted eleven 2-hour episodes (plus a holiday special), the Season 3 format didn't really work for me. In my opinion, there were a few flaws in the production arrangement which made it less interesting than it had seemed in the faster paced shorter runs in previous seasons.

Although I found the show to be quite entertaining, Pat Fish wrote in The Morton Report, "Time (is) better spent watching paint dry."

Even Judge Ben Folds himself noted in his Sing-Off blog, that certain musically advanced groups, such as Afro Blue, might seem over-the-heads of the general public and felt the need to spice up his critique a bit with more colorfully descriptive dialog to keep them from appearing "boring."

The problem wasn't Afro Blue. Their fan following, who had sat quietly by, watching with approval week after week as their favorite group was pushed through to the next round, suddenly made their vast numbers heard when they protested vehemently after Afro Blue was eliminated by the panel of three judges. The ensuing controversy consisting of hundreds of Facebook and twitter posts showed that not only were people watching, they were thoroughly invested. Until then, it had seemed as if the show was being shown in a vacuum.

The problem was that fans were not allowed to vote for their own favorites early on, the way fans vote on shows such as FOX network's American Idol, thereby empowering them and giving them a voice, as well as an incentive to tune in over the long course of the season. Who wants to watch a show week after week, witnessing helplessly as your favorites are kicked out, group by group? American Idol producers understand this concept: let the people vote.

Another problem was the bracket system where competing groups were initially split into two brackets like an ACC basketball tournament, where nearly all of my personal favorite groups were stuck in the same bracket, forced to weed each other out seemingly unfairly.

Producer Deke Sharon, who does an excellent job with The Sing-Off for the most part, seems to have missed the boat on this one, saying in an interview in Pitchpipe in October 2011:
    "I don't think it much matters. Yes, some groups would have perhaps lasted longer if they had different groups in their bracket, but I never view this as a competition."
Not a competition? Really?

I could also have done without the color-coordinated competitor attire – truly less than cool, with few exceptions, save perhaps The Dartmouth Aires' Where's-Waldo-ish striped sweaters and wacky neon colored socks – Now, that was cute!

One improvement in Season 3 was the addition of a season capper: a holiday special. It was a nice touch and would be a great way to extend the short season to 6 days, adding to the format followed in Season 2, which lasted 5 days and culminated in a winner finale show.

Hope for Season 4

It's still possible that The Sing-Off may run in Season 4 – it isn't technically cancelled by NBC and was simply missing from a list of cancelled, renewed, and new shows published.

Judge Ben Folds explains in a note he posted on his Facebook page on Wednesday night.
    "The Sing-Off is obviously not in the fall lineup on NBC. That's all we really know."
Unlike American Idol, or The Voice, The Sing-Off is about teamwork. Contestants must perform as groups with a minimum of five members and many are choral groups hailing from universities and colleges. If your school is represented, you know that's a built in audience of a few thousand college-aged kids who are going to be tuned in, watching your sponsors' fabulous commercials.

The show, owned by Sony, still has the opportunity to shop around for another network, or even take their chances that they may be invited back to NBC after Thanksgiving once again. However, unlike other shows, The Sing-Off is schedule dependent and must be filmed in the summer when college students are on break. All three judges: Ben Folds, Shawn Stockman, and Sara Bareilles, are actively touring musicians and cleared their calendars for what they hoped would be another few weeks of filming.

Fans have suggested that the producers market The Sing-Off to Bravo or PBS. I disagree.

I believe FOX is the ideal network for The Sing-Off, specializing in wholesome family entertainment. FOX is also extremely savvy in marketing. They took a gamble with a little cartoon called The Simpsons pulled from the Tracey Ullman show, and we all know how that worked out. They also gambled with American Idol, which has netted the network the top spot of every single show on television for six years running. They are experts at scheduling, understanding that not every show is a hit, but jockeying the position of winner shows against little competition to allow them to grow and flourish, while placing less popular shows on the schedule where they have little hopes of drawing away viewers from the competition.

The week I was a "Nielsen family," what show did I record I watched the most on my viewer diary? None other than FOX's American Idol.

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