Steve Levitan at TheGrill: We Need a Better Way of Counting Viewers on Emerging Platforms

“I worry about a time, if the [ratings] system is not kept current, that old-fashioned shows that appeal to traditional viewers have an advantage over shows like mine”

Steven Levitan, co-creator and executive producer of the Emmys-dominating “Modern Family,” insists he is not "anti-Internet."

But he says the TV industry must quickly find a better way to track viewership on emerging platforms, or shows like his might be at a disadvantage.

“I worry about a time, if the [ratings] system is not kept current, that old-fashioned shows that appeal to traditional viewers have an advantage over shows like mine that appeal to younger, tech-savvy viewers,” said Levitan, speaking to a crowd of nearly 200 attendees at TheWrap’s media leadership conference.

(Photographs by Jonathan Alcorn.)

In a wide-ranging one-on-one moderated by Jim Impoco, enterprise editor for Reuters America, Levitan covered a lot of ground — from how working on a show that prominently features gay adoptive parents puts him at the forefront of the culture wars, to the effects of Twitter on his writers room.

But the last issue Levitan addressed during his 45-minute panel seemed the most pressing to him.

"There are a number of new, amazing ways to see our show now, and I don’t particularly care how people watch it," Levitan said. "All I ask as a creator is that every pair of eyeballs is counted. We’re judged by that number."

(In the video below, Levitan discusses the pros and cons of Twitter as a device for viewer engagement. Watch Levitan's full appearance at TheGrill here.)

He spoke on the first panel of the day, which followed a short keynote from Sharon Waxman, founder and editor-in-chief of TheWrap and curator of TheGrill.

Also read: Terry Semel at TheGrill: Hollywood Content Is on the Rise

In discussing the show's part in the culture wars, Impoco asked if Levitan has succeeded in his previously stated goal of coming to better understand the Christian Right.

“I have not come to any better understanding of the Christian Right,” he said. “I understand everybody has their values, but I am very intolerant of intolerance. I have no patience for it.”

He was also asked if he worried that including a strong gay narrative would limit his show’s appeal to Middle America.

"You can’t worry about what the audience wants," he said. "As soon as you do that, you’re chasing your tail … we knew that in some ways having a gay couple raising a baby would be a turnoff to a section of the public. But we also knew that we had to do it anyway. It’s a modern family."

Levitan said that “Modern Family” casting director Jeff Greenberg and his partner served as the models for the couple portrayed by Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet. Greenberg — who has been in a committed relationship for 25 years — has served as a regular, believable prototype, Levitan said. The relationship matched the philosophy of Levitan and series co-creator Christopher Lloyd: If you "make it real," the show will resonate.

“We wanted to go for a slightly nerdier version that more honestly resembled what we knew,” Levitan said. “We’re not hanging out with the hippest gay couples. They’re basically versions of us.”

Back on the issue of technology, Levitan was asked about the influence of Twitter over the show’s writers. Certainly, a series that dances to its own tune wouldn’t be influenced by the tweets of a few fringe viewers … would it?

"You can’t take it too literally," Levitan said. "You can’t take the opinion of what 100 vocal people are thinking as what the audience thinks. But what I like about Twitter is that there’s a sense of community. It encourages people to watch the show live because they want to be part of the conversation. And anything that makes viewers want to watch the show live is a very good thing."

So what was “Modern Family’s” biggest influence?

Levitan said the show pays homage to NBC’s "The Office," which he said laid the groundwork for so-called "mockumentary"-style television in the U.S.

"The American 'Office' taught the American viewing public the vocabulary," he noted. "We didn’t have to explain it. There wasn’t this learning curve – they’d already been taught. And to me, it’s the best form for comedy. There are so many tools available to you — it’s that look into the camera."