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What causes the ratings of a hit series to dip? It's complicated.

House, M.D. and the Ratings Game: A Differential Diagnosis

There have been times over the first six seasons of House that the show has changed direction. In an effort to stay fresh–for and the creative team who write and perform it–David Shore and company have never shied away from taking a risk, whether that means jettisoning House’s entire team of fellows, sending him for therapy to kick his Vicodin habit, or, as they have for season seven allowing the chronically miserable House to be happy, hopeful–and in love. Cast members have come, gone, come back again, only to go once more, this time for good.

The fandom—that group of mostly Internet-based hard-core fans (and yes, I include myself) —is, I suppose “the base,” in 2010 political terms. But even the fandom is not a unified voice. Some love the coupling of House and Cuddy (even thinking that it’s way overdue); some hate the very idea and believe with all sincerity that if only Cameron, older and wiser, came back into the picture, House would find again his one true love. Still other believe that until House acknowledges seriously what he has joked about so many times—his passion for Wilson, he will be unfulfilled, denying the real love of his life. Some would prefer House to remain without any romantic entanglements at all (save a hooker or two on the side).

Me, I go with the flow. As long as the writing is good, the characterizations are consistent with what we know about them and the acting is honest, earnest and in the moment, I’m right there. Take me along for the ride, wherever—and with whomever—House sojourns.

The fact is, among the millions (and millions) of people who watch House, whether on Fox, or in syndication on Bravo or USA Network, the fandom people (myself included) are a fairly small part of the whole. Most people watch House with varying degrees of enthusiasm, but even when people do get really hooked, they forget to tune in (cursing themselves afterward if they’ve forgotten to set the DVR), miss an episode here and there and seldom watch an episode more than once (okay, or twice).

They watch mega-marathons on USA Network or Bravo, both owned by House’s producing corporation NBC/Universal. Most of them are not going to stop watching because House is together with Cuddy (or anyone else), that is, unless it’s done poorly or made boring. That’s what causes viewer drift—when they simply stop caring. (That happened to me with The X-Files mid-season seven, when egos on both sides of the camera made for very bad television too often, but I digress.)

It’s a bit hard to tell so early in the season (which I’m enjoying immensely), but it seems the ratings (shiver and quake) are a bit down from last year’s numbers. However, two episodes hardly make a trend. But nonetheless, the question debated hotly and passionately among the “fandom” and some talking heads in Internet TV critic land is “why?”

Some argue that the numbers are down because the creators have taken House down a different path this season. Becoming involved with his boss Lisa Cuddy after (at least) four seasons of flirting and parrying must be it. Getting them together is the death knell: get out the coffins. Really? You mean like when they changed up House’s team in season four (and jettisoned Cameron from the narrative? And Chase for that matter?) At the time, the fans clamored about how that was going to be the death of the series.

I talk about the show all the time (away from my blog and the fandom) to people who’ve only just started watching it; I talk to people who  stopped enjoying it, but have now come back to it (making a point of telling me how much they are enjoying season seven—although why they tell me, I’m not sure, since I’m not attached to the show.)

I have spoken to more and more people over the last couple of months, just now discovering the series on USA or Bravo. Because the episodes on those networks are often shown out of sequence, I always suggest they rent or buy the DVDs so they can observe House’s journey right from the start. Being part of House’s journey, watching him struggle and win, only to falter and pick himself up over six seasons makes for fascinating viewing.

People seem to watch House for so many reasons: the medicine, the wisecracks, the characters, the relationships. That’s why the series such a pleasure: you can watch it casually or watch it for meaning beyond perhaps what even the writers originally intended.

To attribute a small (but possibly significant) downswing in the ratings (especially after only two episodes have aired this season) to a perceived directional change in the series is to overly simplify what contributes to the ratings themselves—and to dismiss possible flaws in the rating system itself given the epidemic time-shifting habits of the television viewing public.

The 8 p.m. timeslot has certainly affected the number of viewers who tune in as it airs. I’m one of those who do not get home from work in time to see the episode live (and might therefore erroneously represent one teeny tiny dropped viewer). I DVR episodes and watch when I get home (and without the commercials) or wait till my purchased Amazon video on demand copy downloads to my TiVo.

Speaking of commercials, the breaks in the action during House episodes is incredibly disruptive—and I know of many, many fans who simply refuse to watch episodes live for that reason. They watch later on DVR or download from Amazon specifically to avoid the increasingly intrusive breaks.

The reported ratings do not account for all (or even most) DVR and rented/purchased streaming views. These are legitimate views, but if not counted (and I confess ignorance of the exactitudes involved with the ratings numbers), then each of those would erroneously represent one less viewer.

Then we have the competition: Dancing with the Starsthe number one rated series—airs opposite House. Ouch (for any series that has to go up against that powerhouse—and this week with Sarah Palin making an appearance? Double ouch.)

And of course, after seven years, we cannot discount viewer attrition, and even those within the coveted demographic range, who have aged out of it by year seven. I’m not sure of that effect, and it’s likely minimal, but hey, it’s probably as valid as saying “Huddy” has caused the decline all by itself.

It’s unlikely that the ratings are causing Fox much worry. House is still a very successful show, coming in among the top 20 for the (all important) demo (yeah, the one I’m not in anymore) during the premiere week. Would it have higher ratings had Cameron stayed? Had House remained miserable and drug addicted? Had the original team stayed as fellows for six years? (Yes, I know Foreman and Chase are still working for House, but are they still fellows or simply on his staff?) No one really knows the answer to those questions and it really doesn’t matter. Shore and company have followed their own vision and for six-plus years it seems to be working.

End of rant and looking forward to episode three, “Unwritten,” airing Monday night at 8 p.m. ET, and guest starring Amy Irving.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."

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