Are Hulu and the iPad Killing Modern Family‘s Broadcast Ratings?

Modern Family has been a hit on TV, but would it be an even bigger hit if you couldn’t watch it for free online?

Modern Family producer Steve Levitan now suggests that ABC (s DIS) take full episodes of his show offline to see what effect that might have on the show’s broadcast ratings, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Pointing out that more than 2 million viewers have watched his show online, Levitan said that Modern Family could be a Top 3 show if online and DVR viewing were added to its ratings.

As a result, Levitan says he’s lobbied to have Modern Family taken offline as a test to see how the broadcast would do without the online channel. The Hollywood Reporter quotes him as saying, “The idea isn’t to remove ways for viewers to find the show… but to see what [would happen to the ratings].”

But some within ABC might disagree with Levitan’s assessment of the effect online viewing might have on his show’s broadcast ratings. In a phone interview last week, Albert Cheng, executive vice president of Digital Media for the Disney-ABC TV Group, said that online video wasn’t competing with broadcast TV, but with other catch-up means of watching the same content, like DVR. “We window content differently, and we see the premier in the first window with live broadcast. But once you get [a show] a day late, who are we competing against? We’re competing against the DVR.”

Of course, the big problem is that the online channel isn’t as fully monetized as the broadcast channel, so Modern Family doesn’t make as much online or on the iPad as it does in its first showing. This is something that the broadcast networks are trying to remedy by increasing the ad load for online videos. ABC has been one of the more aggressive proponents of adding more ads to the content, doubling the ad load for videos that it shows on the iPad, with plans to grow the number of ads served across all digital platforms. From that standpoint, Cheng said that ABC was “feeling good” about how its online monetization stacked up against DVR content.

ABC is still treading carefully, for fear of mucking up the user experience. Full-length iPad videos now have two ads per break, with the typical half-hour comedy having three breaks and the typical hour-long drama having five commercial breaks. While it’s many more ads than most online viewers have become accustomed to, it’s still a long way from the number of ads typically shown during linear broadcast.

Related content on GigaOM Pro: How Online Video Is Shaping the Next Round of Retrans Fights (subscription required)