How iTunes Saved Dunder Mifflin

Every year, starting in the fall, Nielsen Media Research measures the viewership of television shows across the United States. Those ratings help networks decide what shows remain on the slate and which get canceled. For example, take a look at the 2004-2005 rating season results. At the top of the list are a lot of familiar names and franchises — American Idol, CSI, Desperate Housewives, Survivor, Grey’s Anatomy, and Everybody Loves Raymond make up most of the top 10. There are plenty of winners through the top 50 — ER, 60 Minutes, Fear Factor, Will & Grace — and a few more. But as you get beyond that point, it’s dicey at best. For example, tied at #99 were Malcolm and the Middle, a solid sitcom that was canceled a year later, and Wicked Perfect, a reality TV show that did not even earn its own Wikipedia entry. And at #101 was Jake in Progress, a John Stamos-led sitcom that was so bad, it didn’t really have a running plot. It lasted 21 total episodes.

In short, being a sub-100 Nielsen show is typically a death sentence. But that was before iTunes debuted.

If you scroll past Wicked Perfect and Jake in Progress, you’ll find a familiar name: The Office. If you’re not familiar with the sitcom, find some time to binge a few episodes — it’s fun. It’s set at Dunder Mifflin, a Scranton, PA-based company that sells paper. As the title suggests, the comedy is around office life — the politics, the interpersonal relationships, and the incompetent yet sometimes lovable boss. The show is a remake of a BBC show of the same name that ran a few years prior, and NBC — the network that aired the U.S. version — believed it would appeal to middle-aged office workers. That was a key demographic that many successful sitcoms attracted, and this show, the television execs believed, would speak to that cohort.

But as the ratings showed, it didn’t. Because of The Office’s success in the UK, the U.S. version was given a second season, but without major improvement, it wasn’t likely to get a third. But then, Christmas came early — December 6, 2005, to be exact. 

That evening, NBC aired an episode of The Office called “Christmas Party.” You can buy it on YouTube, here, if you want, but your first reaction to that was probably “why would I buy an episode of a TV show I can watch for free elsewhere?” And that was probably what NBC thought back in 2005 — even though streaming services like Netflix and Peacock (which currently has The Office on it) didn’t exist, it was basically unheard of for viewers to pay to watch TV shows that were free to watch on network television. Not only wasn’t that the typical consumer behavior, but it was also basically impossible. Even if you wanted to watch a show after it aired, there was no way to buy it — you’d have to wait years for it to come out on DVD, if it ever did.

But on October 12, 2005, that changed. Apple introduced the fifth generation of its iPod, the first of its portal music players to also play video. And as coincidence would have it — Apple didn’t pay for a product placement — there’s an iPod in the “Christmas Party” episode of The Office. In the episode, the employees are participating in a Secret Santa gift swap and are supposed to limit their gifts to a $20 price point. But Michael, the boss, decides to buy a $400 fifth-generation iPod — the one that plays video — and then shifts the gift swap rules from a Secret Santa to a Yankee Swap. (If you’re not familiar with those terms, watch the episode; it’s more fun than my explanation could possibly be, and the distinction is not really important to today’s Now I Know.) Everyone tries to get the iPod, and the device becomes a central part of the episode. 

A few weeks after the “Christmas Party” episode aired on NBC, real Christmas came to the world — and under many trees were iPods. Apple, to make the video-watching experience robust, had brokered some deals with TV studios and made a lot of different shows available for purchase through their music service, iTunes. And, perhaps because of the iPod’s prominent role in the “Christmas Party” episode, The Office was one of the top-recommended shows in the iTunes store. As Michael Schur, the showrunner for The Office recounted in an oral history (via Mashable), “that year [2005], everyone got everyone a video iPod for Christmas. And when you got a video iPod and set it up and went to the iTunes Store, the first thing that you saw was The Office and the Christmas episode. It was the number one watched thing on iTunes for 30 consecutive days. So everyone spends the entire break watching that episode and then other episodes of the show.”

The cast and crew — and probably some NBC execs, too — credit iTunes with saving the show. As the New York Times reported in a retrospective of The Office, “suddenly NBC was impressed, especially by the makeup of the audience [of the iTunes purchasers]: young, college-educated and affluent. Most shows were made available to such outlets as networks sought new revenue, but The Office fit the iTunes audience precisely.” The show, ultimately, aired for nine seasons, with a total of 201 episodes.

Bonus fact: An episode of The Office helped save someone’s life. In 2019, a 21-year-old named Cross Scott came across a car pulled over by the side of the road and noticed that the car was slowly rolling and the driver was unconscious. He pulled her from the car and couldn’t detect a pulse, so Scott (no relation to Michael) began doing chest compressions despite having no CPR training. How’d he know what to do? The Tuscon Daily Star explains: “What popped into Scott’s head was an episode of the television show The Office in which character Michael Scott (actor Steve Carell) sings the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive while doing chest compressions on a dummy. The episode, where the gang takes an in-office CPR course, could actually be a tutorial in what not to do. The one thing it got right was using that song as a meter — the correct tempo for chest compressions.” The woman regained consciousness and survived.

From the Archives: What You’ve Agreed to Win: Check out the bonus fact, and please do not use any purchased versions of The Office for state-sponsored (or rogue) terrorism. That’d be against what you’ve agreed to.