Are TV Shows Doomed To Lose Viewers?

The news that Syfy’s Warehouse 13 mysteriously dropped in the ratings last week got me thinking about television ratings and the weirdness therein… Mainly, it got me wondering: are all television shows destined to lose viewers?

Before anyone gets too worried about Warehouse 13, it’s not as bad as it sounds; turns out the sudden drop was pretty much a return to the season’s average viewership before the Eureka crossover had given the show a temporary bump upwards. But even with that in mind, the show seems to have lost more than half a million viewers since its season premiere, which was on par with the previous season’s ratings… but why? It’s not as if the show has become any less watchable, or changed timeslots. It’s just… lost viewers.

I’m reminded of the way that, in comics, a “gentle decline” in readership seems to be the norm; anytime a book grows in numbers, it seems unusual, something worthy of comment. We’re more used to, we expect, everything to slowly go down in sales because, we’ve convinced ourselves, the comic industry just works that way. It’s slowly dying, perhaps, or comics are too expensive and people are waiting for trades, or whatever. But those arguments don’t really follow for television, and audiences tend to leave their favorites there, as well. The finale of Lost had five million fewer people watching than tuned in for the pilot, and that’s ignoring both that the finale’s audience was significantly (four million) up from the rest of the season, or that during the show’s peak in popularity, it was getting ten million more people tuning in on a regular basis. Heroes, similarly, divebombed in the ratings after its first season, to the point when it was canceled. Even shows like Two And A Half Men and CSI have fallen from their pedestals over the last few years. But why?

I wonder if both comics and television suffer from the same problem: That most people – that is, the mainstream public, not we devoted fans – don’t want to follow the same people for too long, because they lose interest. They need novelty (Like a Eureka crossover, for example) to pay attention, and most successful longform storytelling shies away from that, for fear of disrupting the natural flow of the story. I’m not sure what the solution to that is: Being okay with losing viewers? More sensationalistic storytelling (Not that that necessarily has to be a bad thing: Eureka‘s continuity reboot this year has brought viewers in and made the show better, in my opinion)? Chaining people to their televisions and taking their remotes away?

What do you think?

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Comments

  • atalex

    Well, speaking for myself (and like Mrs. Slocombe, I am unanimous in this), my viewership has gone down significantly since I canceled my DirecTv subscription. The economy is terrible, my business is struggling, and I could no longer justify paying more than $80 a month for television when 90% of what was on seemed to be utter crap. I've seen exactly one episode of “Two and a Half Men” and I think it gave me brain damage.

    Oh, and the declining viewership for “Heroes” might be related to the fact that it was one of the consistently worst-written network dramas in my entire lifetime. “Cop Rock” was better written than “Heroes.”

  • CraigMax

    The problem with Warehouse 13 this season is they spent 3 or 4 episodes going more for laughs and trying to get the attention of fanboys (Joanne Kelly in a leather superhero outfit, pretending to be a supermodel, etc.) instead keeping things more serious and concentrating on artifacts like they did in the first season. I know that a lot of people got turned off by that and stopped watching.

  • http://twitter.com/tartex Jorg Pacher

    It's pretty simple: as soon as you missed a few episodes, you stop watching, because you would spoiler yourself.

  • http://twitter.com/tartex Jorg Pacher

    It's pretty simple: as soon as you missed a few episodes, you stop watching, because you would spoiler yourself.

  • http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com Bill Reed

    Law of diminishing audience returns is just a fact of life. And now that we live in a world where there's no such thing as appointment television, these things happen. A lot.

  • Dan P

    Hmmm, y'know it could be a similar effect to the 'wait for the Trades' attitude in comics, combined with the idea that MoP's don't want to commit themselves to following a series… I was telling my GF's sisters BF about the 24 box set I bought the other day, he was saying he watched the first series, but preferred the idea of watching the DVD's bercause he just didn't want to schedule his life around a TV drama…

  • E.D.

    I'm not sure it makes sense to connect a general downward trend in viewers (or readers) with the tendency for viewership (or readership) to fall off after big events like crossovers or season premieres (or first issues). They're both real phenomena, but one doesn't have a causal relationship the other. Even if the general viewership (or readership) trend were moving in the other direction, I think you'd still see the peak-and-decay pattern in ratings (or sales).

  • Generalgrievous365

    People watch tv, just now while it's on. I DVR everything and watch it at my leisure or online. I don't think there's anyone keeping track of that. The entire ratings system needs to be reworked.
    And I think Warehouse 13 is better this season. A lot funnier, but still neat artifacts.

  • Generalgrievous365

    just now while it's on, i meant.

  • Generalgrievous365

    NOT. Sigh. dumb keyboard.

  • stpatrick67

    I think audiences are tired of year long stories or in comics long drawn out story lines. I loved comics in the seventies because the most a continued story took was usually three issues. I watched all of LOST, however, I didn't watch the first season on TV. I picked it up on DVD. I was hooked, but I thought about tuning out during season two. I have no desire to watch it again though, which isn't good for DVD sales. I enjoyed shows like The X-Files and The Pretender who had an undlying story but you could watch the episodes and enjoy them for what they were. They had their own identity. The bad thing with each series was there wasn't a solid resolution to what hooked you in the first place. I watched all of Heroes and to be honest, I wish I had stopped during season two. Remember, this is a superhero comic collecting fan saying this. I thought the show went off the map, so to speak, and never found it's way back. As far as Warehouse 13 goes, I missed the first season, and it was the crossover with Eureka but more importantly Lindsay Wagner guest starring now which made me tune in. The show reminds me of Friday the 13th The Series but not as scary or dire. Everybody has their genres they like and if it is good, will tune in, or may leave but come back. I know a lot of people who get upset at the fact that they tune in to a show and after one season or a couple, the show is dropped and they are upset about it: Flash Forward and Firefly come to mind (strange both shows begin with an “f”).

  • VOD killed the Television Star

    There's no such thing as “appointment television” anymore. I can record anything I watch, and if something happens and it doesn't record for some reason, I can watch it on hulu.com. The only shows that don't really lose viewers are the ones for older people because it's what they put on while they're falling asleep in the chair at 8pm.

    Also, let's not ignore the fact that nielsen households are a sampling of the viewing audience. They're not an accurate representation of the entire viewership. Along that line, a lot of people are like me and prefer to watch shows on DVD. I'd rather spend a month watching all 6 seasons of Lost than get a piece of the story and have to wait a week for each episode and months for the next season.

    People have been crushed by their favorite shows getting cancelled for too long to suffer it every year. It's better to wait and see what lasts then pick something from the survivors than to watch a show faithfully and send emails to the studio only to watch them cancel what you feel is the only original show on television while boring tripe like CSI and NCIS or some other acronym show gets the huge ratings which are disproportionate to its originality and watchability. Ratings which are heavily skewed to the older viewer because younger people download and stream instead.

    My Netflix queue is ten times the size of my VCR timed recording list. I really wouldn't lose anything by dropping cable, but since I get a deal on my internet service by having the television channels as well, I just keep them.. it balances out. So I watch some things so I don't have to use queue slots for them. Warehouse 13 is a Netflix item for me. So is Galactica (still haven't finished it). Community and The Office are 2 shows I watch every week as they air. I watched Season 1 of Fringe as it aired but am waiting for DVD on future seasons because I want to watch Community and The Office every week and it's up against them now. It wasn't in season 1.

    All of this is a long way of saying…put out the shows you believe in and they will find an audience. Cable/Broadcast television isn't the endgame anymore. Especially not for younger viewers. The networks change up their schedules every year and viewers have to make tough choices sometimes. That doesn't always equal a “lost” viewer…sometimes just a delayed one.

  • http://twitter.com/RichardCasey Richard Casey

    it isn't FANS who're deserting shows, its casual viewers who'll dip in and out of the show. Plus, in this day and age, tv ratings should be ignored due to the high volume of people watching shows via other methods such as downloads, viewing online (legally and illegally) and of course home video, buying the Box sets when they come out, which is often a better and more convieniant viewing experience in the day and age of constant adverts even DURING the show, with banners and constant ads in the corner reminding us a show with no correlation to the one we're watching is starting next week.

    Its nothing to do with people not wanting series arcs or multi part stories, those kind of shows predominantly fail because they're poorly written and made, Heroes being a prime example, where the first series was great and had great viewers, second series was ill made and only the die hard fans stayed with it because they'd invested time in the characters.

  • Mars

    I remember Veronica Mars getting a higher average rating in its third year than its second year but it still got cancelled. , Ratings for Doctor Who in the UK sky rocketed in the 4th year.Just like comics it really depends on the continuity jump on point.

  • Lion_okitkat

    I stopped watching Eureka a while back after the 2nd season. It just got repetitive, same with Warehouse 13, repetitive and a bit to much slapstick. The episode that introduced the female HG Wells was the last full ep I watched. ST:Universe almost lost me but I'm giving it a second chance. I felt the Lucien Alliance just came out of left field and there was no build up. Maybe I just haven't been paying attention. The show can be a bit boring to.

  • Mickeytristan

    I think that Reality shows are to blame for the downfall of pure great entertainment!

  • http://cameronballentinedesign.info Crballentinedesign

    I think viewership isn't necessarily going down so much as the wiewership is changing the way in which they watch their shows that the ratings dont usually reflect. Especially with this “NOW, NOW, NOW” age of receiving information people are no longer tuning into shows during the time period and planning their life around when shows come on. We no longer have to wait for 7:00 to tune into XYZ show because I can either A. watch it.download online (legally and illegally) or DVR it and watch it later if I'm doing something else. Also there's so much content that can be viewed at any given time with a lot being similar in themes and ideas that it can't all be viewed at once, so shows will often fall through the cracks because the viewership is being split between programs that are similar in nature. I think the ratings system needs to be drastically changed in order to accomodate the habits of the viewers

  • Bass Guitar Hero

    Well, when you have a four-minute commercial break running every six or seven minutes, it's easy for casual viewers to drift off towards something else, IMO…

  • TF_loki

    I know as far as UK ratings are concerned if you've PVR'd something and watch it more than a week later it doesn't count. Personally, there is a lot of stuff I've watched over the last 2 years (Dexter, Leverage, Damages) where I didn't start watching it until the season was half over.

  • http://twitter.com/jasonseas Jason Seas

    I think maybe we are just hitting the point were a 20 or 23 episode season is starting to stretch the attention span a bit. Or at least for the serialized shows that try to maintain a consistent story line for that long. In most cases, it just doesnt seem to work. The shows that do half seasons, which may have a more dominant story arc for 10 episodes or so, even with an overriding season arc, seem to me to tell their stories better, be more interesting, and have less “wasted” stand alone episodes that just dont fit in.

  • Jpjr101

    I haven't read all the previous comments so I don't know if someone has already said what I'll say.

    I believe the declining ratings has to do with the rise in downloading (either legal or illegal means), stations now streaming content on their own personal site (or site's like Hulu). I know a lot of the viewership are going more towards Blu Ray/DVD sets. I don't watch True Blood, Fringe, or Rescue Me on tv or online, I'd rather sit down and enjoy the entire series in a week or two of marathon watching.

  • http://twitter.com/mmeans68 mmeans68

    I'll agree on the point that there is no 'appointment' television anymore and, as was stated, I think it's taking a huge toll on the antiquated ratings system.

    Personally, I hate even trying to check out new shows anymore due to the 'here today, gone tomorrow' scheduling. You invest time in a show for a couple of months only to find it's had the plug pulled for whatever reason.

  • Dirkja

    I liked the 1st season of Warehouse 13, but I've been really disappointed in season 2 so far. Seems like the writers are going for jokey, silly plots – the “body-switch” routine last week was so lame, I quit watching about 15 minutes into the show. I still like the premise with the artifacts, but I would much prefer a more serious approach.

    As far as TV in general, I get the sense that everyone is shooting for the lowest common denominator. Nobody wants to challenge the audience's intelligence for fear of being labeled as “highbrow” or “too esoteric.” And shows that do aim a little higher, like “Dollhouse,” get terrible ratings, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy for the programmers. What's sad is that thoughtful shows like the original “Twilight Zone” would never make it on the air in today's climate (except maybe on HBO). I'm talking about genre TV here – sci-fi and fantasy – not a straight drama like Mad Men. Actually, one show I do like is “Merlin” – a BBC import on NBC – although they also throw in their share of slapstick.

  • kalorama

    I think this entire piece is based on a flawed premise. There's nothing “mysterios” about a TV show losing viewers. It's a pretty common event, esp. in these days where there's so much competition for entertainment audience attention.

  • Blade X

    If I were to take a guess, I would say that the drop in ratings for TV shows (like the decline in comic book sales) is partly due to most TV programs becoming way too “adult” in an attempt to be “edgy” and “KEWL”. Most TV shows are aimed at older teens and adults, instead of being aimed at a wide all ages viewership. I believe that most people are either “turned off” by some of the adult content or have become bored/numb to it (one of the major downsides to making entertainment to commonly “adult”).

  • CapnBludd

    They really need a new rating system. Like other folks have mentioned, I dvr most everything I watch, and one of the good things about cable shows is that they show most of them again the same night allowing me options for conflicts in recording. Find a way to count those of us that do things that way and ratings for almost every show will climb. I no longer need to choose one or the other, I can see 2 things later and if it is a really bad conflict day I can watch a broadcast show and save 2 other things on the dvr for whenever I get to it.

  • James

    Watch the first half of season one and watch the latest episodes. Not the same show at all. The feel and characters have changed. The banter isn't funny and most of the characters are annoying now. sigh.

  • Steven

    Not every person who watches Eureka watches Warehouse 13, and not every person who watches Warehouse 13 watches Eureka. If there was a spike in viewership to the tune of a half-million viewers watching Warehouse 13 during the crossover, the simplest answer is that 500,000 Eureka viewers who don't watch Warehouse 13 love the show enough to follow its characters to another show. Once the crossover ended, so did their interest in Warehouse 13, and so the numbers drop back to normal.

  • Steven

    There are so many variables to how a show gains and loses an audience, the best we can accomplish is to speculate on the possible reasons as we'll probably never know for certain. Why did Heroes fall so far, so fast? Personally, I believe the writing on the second season and beyond was absolutely terrible. I did stick with the series until the bitter end, but only because I loved the first season, and as you yourself pointed out, fans tend to stay devoted, no matter what. Why is CSI losing viewers? They've glutted the market with CSI shows, trying to recreate the success they had with the original. If you have too many shows of the same type, viewers get burned out.

    The Nielsen system is flawed because the boxes that represent “the people” are in too few households to be a true measure. Think about your own viewing schedule each week. How often do you vary your schedule, aside from flipping through the channels during commercials. On Mondays I have to watch HIMYM, Castle and Chuck. That never varies. I couldn't tell you what is on the other stations because I don't care enough to know. Why would it be any different for people with a Nielsen box? They have their habits, and those habits are probably just as set in stone as it is with us. And by luck of the draw, the 5000 people lucky enough to have those boxes happen to watch CSI, American Idol and the like. I guarantee that if a thousand or so of the families that own those boxes were geeks like us, our “viewership” would skyrocket. Sadly, we are getting shafted because those families aren't geeks.

  • Spider

    In this particular case, it's the opposite; this once-drawing TV show tried to broaden its appeal, and became too juvenile. Must Yawn TV. In the last three weeks, I've fallen asleep
    during W13 five times. I can't watch an entire episode without finding something else to do.

  • Wildstorm

    I have not picked up any new syfy shows. I am just watching what I have been (Eureka, Ghost Hunters) because of what SyFy likes to do. I hate it when they have a good series, ie. Stargate, Stargate Atlantis and Farscape and just decide to cancel it.

  • Spenley02

    My husband and I dropped cable this year. We now watch everything on HULU or Netflix, and I don't thing we will ever go back.

  • zodberg

    all all things destinied to decay as mutual gravitational pull between all matter causing a gradual atomic deterioration in all things?

    every show loses viewers eventually, every comic book leaks readers, and while there are occasional (rare) jumps in readership, the typical explanation for this is a book changing creating teams and becoming a new book which happens to inherit the old title.

  • Don

    Absolutely. I hardly watch anything live anymore. And commercials are essentially useless as well. Just fast-forward after you record the show. They're going to have to find another way to pay for the shows now.

  • Knightoftomorrow

    I would say that Nielsen ratings system is doomed to become obsolete if they don't find a way to accurately report who is watching what.

    Of course, the reason that studios want to know who is watching when it airs is for the ad time. If there are more people watching a certain program at a certain time, the studio can charge more money for commercials during that time slot.

    So maybe television itself, as we know it, is doomed to become obsolete as one of the reasons people prefer DVR, online streaming, and TV on DVD is to avoid the ads.

  • Djainette

    TV Shows are like comics : some people are fans and stay no matter what, others just like some casual entertaining. The problem is in the numbers. Casual watchers/readers are afraid of having to deal with 60 years or 4 seasons of continuity.
    Continuity isn't a bad thing, on the contrary. It helps building a more sophisticated storytelling, and rewards the fans for their attention. But the average joe is completely lost when it comes to flashbacks and recaps (even more when writers try all the possible love triangles between characters). And since people don't like to fell stupid, they stop watching.

  • Sonofspam

    A lot of tv shows run the same exact story over and over again honestly.

  • Sam

    My guess: If a show starts to bore me, I drop it. I am not going to waste my time hoping a show “gets better again” down the road. I have only so much time in the day, and I would rather use that to watch shows that I enjoy instead of watching shows that I hope will eventually return to form… because honestly, how often does that happen?
    Another rule I have is that I don't give shows a try unless I have an opportunity to jump on at the ground floor. I'm not going to jump in to a new serialized television program and then spend half my time trying to figure out the back story.
    Now obviously I can't speak for anyone else, but if anyone else out there follows those basic rules, then that probably explains the continual drop-off in viewers for serialized television programs. Ironically, it also seems to suggest that episodic television shows would probably fare much better… you know, kind of like it did back in the 80s.

  • Mwedmer

    the show is fine. What is happening, is that people are dropping Cable service because most programming is available on demand on the web.
    I for example dropped all but basic cable.
    I now have 12 channels and not one of them is Sci/fi. the reason is because Cable companies will not allow subscribers to choose the channels they are interested in but the channels they wish to provide based on program blocks. I personally cannot feel good about paying an extra $30 a month so I can get one channel I want along with 25 channels I don't want.

    Yet, I still watch Warehouse 13, Eureka, Haven, Stargate, Burn Notice among other shows. All on the web. At my convenience.

    Currently, there is no tracking of amount of views a show has on Hulu or any other provider.
    so, with Neilson still following ONLY TV numbers, it will look like shows are failing.

  • Lufio

    The way TV viewership is measured is inherently faulty. Even if you measure a large swatch of the viewership, demographics are based on age, gender, race, class and area; there's no “nerd” demographic, nor does it measure enjoyment, or whether or not the target audience works shift work, has a life, has gotten rid of cable in favor of DVD box-sets or are viewing their favorite programs online. That's how Family Guy and Futurama came back, and how Dollhouse got a second season, after they had all been cancelled for “dismal ratings”. (hard to imagine with the dominance of Family Guy on 5 different networks where I am, though 2 are under the same umbrella).

    Comics have other hurdles to jump over though. They are pretty much only sold in specialty shops (which are often out of the way), they don't benefit from casual viewership (like television, where people tend to watch something because “it's on”), and while long, drawn out stories work well on TV, our desire for closure only needs to wait a week between chapters, not a month (very smart move to make Brightest Day and Generation Lost bi-weekly and capitalizing on it's momentum). Older comics benefitted from having 1-3 complete stories in a single issue (and being dirt cheap), only spilling over into 2 or 3 part story-lines when they were important. Of course, those BIG stories made money, so done-in-one and back-ups faded in favor of sprawling story arcs. Longer stories do give you more room for character development and great spreads of Batman wrangling Killer Croc, but it also makes it hard for people to jump in at any point (making it necessary for publishers to devote a page to character info or backstory at the beginning of an issue).

    That's why Free Comic Book Day and television/movies have been so integral in expanding and retrieving audiences. People need a taste of the comic book world, or perhaps a new footing (which can always be supplimented with a quick trip to Wikipedia, where you can find out what Tony Stark has been up to in the 616 universe). But the current story-line still has to appeal to prospective readers. Bad writers and bad story-lines (like “New Krypton” or “The Clone Saga”) will turn people away from even the biggest titles because people take them for granted and figure they can just wait out the garbage. I stopped collecting X-Men when they started recycling storylines they had done only two years ago (and frankly, it just started to suck after Age of Apocalypse – I held out hope that things would get better if I just suffered through the Onslaught Saga, but the Prime Sentinels were the last straw). I still loved the X-Men and comics in general, but wasn't going to spend $3.99 an issue to be disappointed month after month. I would be content playing the video games and watching the cartoons.

    There's also only so many people who are into the superhero genre, and they only have so much money. Publishers may be inclined to put out an insane amount of books to capitalize on a popular character (like the ubiqitous Wolverine, seriously, what comic isn't he in?) or on the impending release of a summer block buster (Thor based titles are on the rise, co-incidence? F no.), but they frequently breach the point of equilibrium, resulting in overstock or making fans sick of certain characters and alienating the audience that they currently have.

    I know “Direct Market” has helped comics in some regards, but it has also pushed them out of mainstream stores, like supermarkets, where casual people are far more likely to pick them up, or kids to pester their parents. They do still exist alongside periodicals (another business undergoing tough times) in some pharmacies and Wal-Marts, but you can't rely on the comics you're collecting to come in every month (I spent a year trying to collect Maximum Carnage, which sprawled not only across 14 issues, but 4 regular titles and the Unlimited series. I was diligent, scouring every grocery store, pharmacy, book store and specialty shop I could find and I'm still missing two issues. That kind of thing can be pretty discouraging. Thank God for eBay.) Perhaps if they're going to give a popular character more than one title, they can devote one of them to in continuity, done-in-one, cheap comics available at a grocery store that anyone can pick up and that are in continuity.

  • Papercut_fun

    I don't watch Warehouse 13 so I'm not sure how many episodes it runs, but I think taking a page from HBO and the BBC and moving to 13 episode seasons, that run every single week, is the way to go. It's fairly easy to commit to 3 months of one show and then moving on to something new. I'm not sure what ratings on shows like Entourage, Dexter, Doctor Who & True Blood look like from one season to the next, but they seem to be shows that are more often talked about and anticipated because they pack great content into a shorter timeframe and their absence between seasons is long enough to create some excitement for their return. Not to mention that it's also easier for potential new viewers to catch up on missed seasons without it having to feel like a full time job.

  • s1rude

    I'd agree with this, and say that it also explains my philosophy regarding new comics as well. The older I get, the more precious my time and money are, and I don't want to invest in stories that don't get concluded. I also try to hedge my bets by getting a sense of critical and fan reaction before getting a trade or DVD collection.

    Not sure if/how this feeds into the “doomed to drop viewers” premise of the original post, but I do hope that the folks who market entertainments are paying attention to this trend and factoring it in to their accounting of producing them – because it seems to me that the number of quickly canceled TV shows and comics means they aren't.

  • Badthingus

    Because even the slowest person realized it was a lame combination of Friday The 13th The Series and The X-Files?

  • http://twitter.com/giantsizegeek Giant-Size Geek

    Ha! That Friday the 13th the Series reference was perfect for Warehouse 13. I quite liked that show, cheesy as it was, the chick with the raven hair got me to come back each week.

  • Spinja

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Warehouse 13 has become ‘unwatchable’ but it is safe to say that I fear it’s going down the same path as Heroes.

    The first season of Heroes was FANTASTIC. Great story lines all around and the character development was superb. Each time someone used a power I jumped out of my chair with excitement. Then season 2 began and it settled into the serialized crap that almost every other show ends up being. Trust me I wanted desperately to LOVE Heroes – but it just wasn’t happening.

    The first season of Warehouse 13 was great. The character development sucked you in by making you identify and care for the protagonists…sometimes it’s that connection to the characters that keeps you coming back for more. The concept of artifacts was very intriguing (reminiscent of The Lost Room – which was incredible) but I fully agree with the poster above enough is enough with the ‘sexiness’ of the female characters or the slapstick of another ‘Arty is an old fart’ joke…

    Give us some mystery and give us some humor, but mostly give us back our expectation of Warehouse 13 that we got in season 1!

  • Mshavzin

    I no longer watch shows even if they look good, because I have been burned too often by the network cancelling EVERY show I liked. So now I just stick to movies. We need a different way of producing shows, one that will give a show a longer chance then two shows. The only shows that I would concider watching are on the CW, where they give shows a chance. Its too bad most of their shows suck.

  • Mshavzin

    Does anyone trust nielsen ratings? Because I think its crap. I don’t think that there is any good information about what is going on any longer. No one watches tv live, and no one can say which shows are popular. Why does no one but nielsen provide this data? i know there is a market.e