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Traditional Ratings Aren’t Toast Yet — and Neither Is ‘Dr. Ken’

ABC’s sophomore sitcom is our clearest current reminder that prestige programming isn’t really king

Jungyeon Roh
Jungyeon Roh

We talk about TV all the time, but we hardly talk about all the TV. This week, we’re looking at the shows, people, and networks that we know people love — that we love — but typically fall outside of the critical hivemind. This is TV Airing in Plain Sight.

I haven’t seen the second-season premiere of ABC sitcom Dr. Ken, which will air tonight at 8:30 ET. As far as I know, no one outside ABC has; a spokesperson said that the episode hasn’t been posted for review. According to the promos, though, it’s gonna be sick. Get it? Because Ken is a doctor.

There are two typical, often interrelated reasons not to send out screeners: first, because you know critics will pan your product (like Independence Day: Resurgence), and second, because you know your product will do well without the press’s imprimatur (like Independence Day: Resurgence). Dr. Ken, a loosely autobiographical comedy created by its star/writer, Ken Jeong, appears to tick both boxes.

ABC can’t be blamed for keeping Dr. Ken close: The network has already been bitten by reviewers once, so this time it’s twice shy. ABC learned last year that people who are paid to write and talk about TV have a universal aversion to Dr. Ken, which would normally limit a program’s life expectancy. There are more than 2,400 TV shows with review scores in Metacritic’s online archive. Dr. Ken’s first-season score, 26 out of 100 possible points, is the worst of any show in the archive with more than one season. Based on that data, then, no recent show that’s drawn any critical interest has been as “bad” as Dr. Ken from the press’s perspective and still been brought back. The kindest review, according to Metacritic’s ratings, came from The Washington Post, which called the show’s humor “plainer than Dr. Ken’s khakis.” Yet Dr. Ken endures. So why was it saved from the fate of many more acclaimed shows that were axed after a single season?

The network declined to comment, so we can’t ask ABC. But we don’t need access for answers; call it “Dr. Ken Has a Cold.” The secret to Dr. Ken’s survival is simple: People watch it, which matters even in 2016. As the proliferation of programming keeps splintering audiences and spawning new delivery systems for scripted TV, it’s increasingly common for well-regarded shows to get longer leashes than they otherwise would. And while the tyranny of traditional, overnight ratings is slipping, the You’re the WorstThe Americans model of low-to-middling ratings propped up by prestige is still the exception. Dr. Ken is our clearest reminder that for most shows, particularly on America’s most-watched channels, ratings still rule.

If you remember your West Wing, you know that Friday is when the White House tries to take out the trash. To an extent, the same is true of network TV. “Friday night and Saturday night are the lowest-usage nights of the week,” says Preston Beckman, a veteran head program planner and scheduler for NBC and Fox. “Therefore, the ratings bar is a little lower on those nights than on other nights.” It’s especially low when it comes to the target audience that gets advertisers excited. “The people who watch TV at home on Friday tend to be older,” says Rick Porter, editor of TV By the Numbers. “18-to-49 ratings are in general about 30 percent lower on Fridays than they are on the other weeknights.”

Dr. Ken did well despite having those handicaps. According to Spoiler TV, ABC shows are averaging a 4.14 overall rating, with an average 18-to-49 audience of 0.96. Dr. Ken beat both of those figures: The show’s first season averaged 5.26 and 1.11 ratings, respectively, with only a modest decline during its 22-episode run. It also held its own among time-shifting viewers: Porter reports that the show’s “Live + 3” demo rating, which includes DVR viewers, increased by 36 percent, right in line with the 38 percent average for non-CW networks.

If anything, the horrendous reviews may have helped Dr. Ken after its premiere, setting expectations so low that the show almost couldn’t help but clear them. “Nobody expected the show to work at all,” Beckman says. “I remember when I saw the ratings for the first episode, it was like, ‘OK!’” Maybe we can credit the Kid Cudi bump.

After Dr. Ken cleared the dual hurdle of repellant reviews and a lackluster pilot, the show’s average IMDb user ratings spiked, although that probably had less to do with its in-season increase in quality than it did the anti-Ken crowd checking out after its first bitter taste.

We know that millions of Americans liked Dr. Ken enough to not turn off the TV, but from what we can tell, a lot of them went well beyond the minimum loyalty level. Canvs, a company that uses language analysis to map the emotional reactions of TV viewers from Nielsen’s real-time Twitter data, says that Dr. Ken’s Twitter game is small but strong. According to Canvs, 42.4 percent of tweets sent during Dr. Ken’s first season that contained the words “Dr. Ken” and terms that were “directly associated with the show” expressed an emotion, which was 15.1 percent higher than the average reaction rate for ABC shows.

Among the emotions, love led the way, accounting for 43.6 percent of those reactions, 13 percent higher than the ABC average; “funny” checked in at 16.5 percent, 26 percent above the ABC average. (To be fair, American Crime probably brings down the baseline.) Admittedly, the process sounds prone to misclassifications, but the company does provide data to TV networks, creators, and advertisers, who use it to plan marketing campaigns, match commercials’ tones to shows’, and even assess the appeal of particular plotlines or characters. If any of Canvs’s clients are asking questions about Dr. Ken, they’re getting glowing feedback.

Canvs
Canvs

It will probably be a while before The Ringer finds another time to dust off our Dr. Ken metatag, but the show’s audience dwarfs those of many of the programs that sites such as ours cover regularly. Inside the internet bubble, it’s easy to forget that your watercooler conversations might not sound the same as most Americans’. Pluck a randomly sampled citizen out of the crowd, and you’re more likely to find yourself speaking to someone who’s seen Dr. Ken than someone who’s seen, say, Fargo or Better Call Saul — or maybe, for that matter, the Emmy Award winner for Outstanding Comedy Writing, Master of None.

On Friday night, ABC isn’t aiming for Emmys. “What ABC is looking for is a show that is going to keep as much of the 8 o’clock audience as possible,” Beckman says. “What kind of a show works on ABC? Family comedy, put a dad at the center of a show … and make it palatable for as many people as possible.”

At that, the show succeeds. Jeong plays Ken Park, who like Jeong went to Duke, became a doctor of internal medicine, and went to work in a California clinic. Unlike Jeong, he didn’t act on his aspirations as an entertainer, aside from emceeing banquets and (spoilers, I suppose) doing an open-mic night in the first-season finale. Somehow, Jeong manages not to be credible as a doctor even though he is one. That’s mostly because of his character, who like a lot of sitcom centerpieces is a likable but immature man-child who’s barely believable as an employed person, let alone a member of a family who can tolerate his company for more than 22 minutes at a time.

Although the average review score made me expect egregious crimes against comedy, Dr. Ken isn’t noticeably unfunnier than many a multicam sitcom that came before it. Nor is it one of the regressive breed whose sense of humor actively makes the world worse. Dr. Ken can be formulaic, falling back on standard Sitcom Situations and neat, reassuring resolutions, and for every genuinely original joke, there’s one (or more) that could be summed up as “Parenthood, right?” or “Marriage, right?” On the whole, the show is a lot like the scene in which Ken complains about his wife to a lamp, with the lamp standing in for 4 million Americans.

In other words, Dr. Ken is a standard old-school, feel-good sitcom, but with more cameos from Community veterans and a more diverse cast. The latter marks Dr. Ken’s greatest cultural contribution: Jeong doesn’t hesitate to mine his heritage for material, most notably in the Thanksgiving episode in which the Korean Ken and his Japanese wife feud over competing cultural traditions. Perhaps the clearest sign of progress, though, is how smoothly this nontraditional cast slides into traditional templates. Despite its fresh faces, Dr. Ken comes from the same mold as its lead-in, the Tim Allen–carried comedy Last Man Standing, which got only slightly more positive reviews than Dr. Ken in its first season. (That was five seasons ago.) Allen has been playing the put-upon dad for decades, and his show still draws dependably in the mid–6 millions, with an average demo rating of 1.20. Dr. Ken kept most of that crowd, which was all ABC asked. “They were within a tenth of a point of Last Man Standing pretty much all season last year, and I think it did better, at least relative to Last Man Standing, than the show that aired in that spot for the previous two years,” Porter says. “So it wasn’t a huge surprise from a ratings standpoint that it got renewed.”

In Dr. Ken’s case, the audience’s priorities are different from those of the writers who tried to warn them away. “The critics go, ‘Hey, this is a piece of shit,’ and people go, ‘Hey, it’s Friday at 8:30, I like Last Man Standing, I like Tim Allen, I’ll watch,’” Beckman says. “I’ve put in a full week’s work, and on Friday I’m not trying to think that hard.’” The critics were collateral damage, casualties of a campaign in which they weren’t the target. “Nobody at ABC said, ‘How can I piss off the critics?’” Beckman continues. “They said, ‘What would be a good companion to Last Man Standing?’ And a companion is a show that holds the rating.”

Aside from the Friday factor, a few other points have worked in Dr. Ken’s favor. For one, Last Man Standing and Shark Tank (whose cast will soon commingle with Ken’s in an unlikely crossover episode) give ABC a strong slate that probably burnishes Ken’s ratings by some amount. For another, ABC’s critic-approved comedies on Tuesday and Wednesday supply some of the prestige its Friday lineup lacks. And Dr. Ken deepens the network’s commitment to diversity, as represented by Black-ish, Fresh off the Boat, and Speechless, among other shows. In addition to righting wrongs, that outreach to underrepresented communities might manifest financially. “Expanding your demographic base in as many directions as you can just makes sense for a network,” Porter says.

Lastly, ABC’s stake in Dr. Ken gives the network a greater incentive to see it succeed. “ABC and Disney, they coproduce it with Sony,” Porter says. “But they own the rights as far as syndication, so they have an interest in keeping it on the air that way too.” If ABC didn’t own the rights, Dr. Ken’s future would hinge almost entirely on how much the network could charge for ads that air in its time slot, which would tie it to ratings even more tightly than cable shows, whose budgets are partially subsidized by subscription fees. “If you’re a cable network, it’s a different game; you’re just trying to get one show to be in the zeitgeist so that a cable system says, ‘Well, I can’t drop this network,’” Beckman says.

If ABC can keep stringing the audience along for a few more seasons, Dr. Ken could be a windfall. “If you own Dr. Ken, you can keep it on for four seasons, five seasons, generate 100 episodes,” Beckman says. “You can take it on syndication, you can — obviously, after a year — sell it to a streaming service. So there’s all kinds of ways in which you can make money off that show.”

“Television is commerce,” Beckman says. “If all you’re doing is putting on shows that you’re proud of and that the critics love, but nobody’s watching them, then you’re going to be unemployed.”

In most cases, professional opiners don’t have enough sway to move the needle on network TV. Even as average ratings dwindle, built-in audiences are too big (and oblivious to buzz) for bloggers to scare them away. “More people are going to see a promo for Dr. Ken and Last Man Standing than are going to read the Tim Goodmans and the Alan Sepinwalls,” says Beckman. “I’m not trashing them, but at the end of the day, more people are going to react and evaluate a show based on a promo, even in this day and age, than they are from an article.”

The networks’ task is to look beyond the internet ecosystem, to resist prestige temptation, and to worry about what will appeal to the most people whose tastes are tracked by Nielsen. And in a case like Dr. Ken’s, Beckman says, ABC probably “looks at the numbers and they go, ‘OK, we can do a lot worse, and if we cancel this show, we probably would.’” All of which means that we might be much closer to Dr. Ken’s debut than we are to its finale.

“Critical reception can help a marginal show stay on, but I don’t think it’s going to get a popular show canceled,” Porter says. “According to Jim ran for nine years, Two and a Half Men ran for like 12 years. There are lots more examples of popular, badly reviewed shows that last forever than critical darlings with low ratings, particularly on broadcast networks.”

Even as the ground shifts under the industry’s feet, the Dr. Kens will keep coming. And depending on what you want out of TV, that might be the perfect prescription. Get it? Because Ken is a doctor.

An earlier version of this piece misstated viewership information for ABC shows and Dr. Ken. ABC is averaging a 4.14 overall rating, rather than 4.14 million viewers; the network’s average 18-to-49 audience registers a 0.96 rating, rather than a total of 0.96 million. Dr. Ken averages a 5.26 overall rating and a 1.11 rating with the 18-to-49 demographic, rather than total viewership of 5.26 million and 1.11 million, respectively.