Tuesday, July 13, 2010

"Another Kind of Truth"

Yesterday, I talked about “Received Truth”, meaning the truth that comes down to us, and we accept it, because it’s the only information on the particular issue we’ve got. We hope that information is correct, but we’re ultimately at the mercy of the record.

Northern Historian: “At the end of the Civil War, we allowed our Southern adversaries to retain their weapons and their horses, as we knew they’d be necessary when they returned to their homes.”

What they left out was that they denied their adversaries pens, because they didn’t want them writing anything bad about them.

So there’s “Received Truth”, for better or worse. We move on to “Invented Truth.”

The following is hardly the most egregious example of “Invented Truth”, but it’s one I have direct knowledge of, because it relates to the business I was formerly in, and played a pivotal role in my not being in it anymore.

Neal Gabler is a former movie critic turned cultural commentator. I read this in an article he wrote. I forget the point he was trying to make. I’m just stealing it to make mine.

Gabler talked about a time in television when there were only three networks, and ABC was running third, which, out of three networks, of course, means last.

It’s not good being last in the ratings. Running last means your programs are the least watched, and as a result, the rates you can charge advertisers to place commercials on those programs are, by necessity, lower.

Lower revenues means less money to spend on programs, which means cheaper programs, which, as with ball clubs with lower revenues, means less competitive programs, which means still lower viewership, which means network profitability spiraling continually downward. It’s not a good thing.

So ABC’s sitting there with the lowest viewership levels. And they’re sad. Maybe feeling a little defeated. And they have a meeting.

“What are we going to do?”

Everyone looks in their laps. They don’t know what to do. I mean, they could make better shows, but that’s really hard. There’s gotta be something else.

Suddenly, a guy, or gal, from “Research” races in, a sheaf of printouts grasped tightly in their fist.

“We’ve got it!”

Everyone cheers. Then they return to their senses.

“Got what?”

“Proof that we’re ‘Number One’ in something.”

“We are? Great! What are we ‘Number One’ in?”

“Younger viewership.”

Everyone cheers again. They knew this was true. Of the three networks, ABC unquestionably had the youngest audience. The euphoria dies down and, once again, they return to their senses.

“So what?”

“What do you mean?”

“Who cares how old the audience is? We sell audiences by their size, not by their birthdays.”

“Right now we do. But what if we convince advertisers that measuring audiences by their size is wrong. What if we can prove that a younger audience – the audience we have in larger numbers than anyone else – is a better audience?”

“How do we do that?”

And here’s where “Invented Truth” kicks in. You begin with a fact – ABC has the largest audience of younger viewers – and you link that fact to an invented argument, an argument that may have no validity whatsoever:

“Younger audiences are better.”

What’s the argument?

“Younger audiences are younger.”

“Well, I’m with you so far. But, again, so what?”

“Don’t you see? A sixty year-old viewer lives, maybe, to eighty-five, we only have them for twenty-five years. An eighteen year-old viewer, lives to the same age, or maybe longer the way things are going, we’ve go them for sixty-seven years.”

“That’s longer.”

“Yes it is. Plus, younger viewers are not as ‘brand loyal’ as older viewers.”

“In that case, we won’t have them for sixty-seven years.”

“Right now, they’re up for grabs. But if we get them…”

“Sixty-seven years.”


“So we tell the advertisers that younger audiences are better.”


“Is it true?”

“The numbers don’t lie.”

“The numbers indicate we have the youngest audience. They don’t tell us that younger audiences are better.”

“But they are.”

“Who says?”

“We do.”

And that was it. ABC invented an argument supporting the superiority of the only thing they had going for them. And the advertisers – many of them younger advertisers – bought it.

And now it’s a fact. When you read about television ratings, reference is always made to the younger audience as

the audience most coveted by advertisers

Today, shows are created almost exclusively for that younger audience.

An “Invented Truth.”

And it revolutionized a business.
A "shout out" to Rachel on her upcoming birthday. You're lucky if you know her. She's absolutely sensational. Happy birthday, Rooster Girl. Here's hoping your most cherished dreams and wishes come true.


Your Stepladder.


PG said...

This may be about to change. A fellow up here named Moses is leading the way to the new Promised Land of life after 50. After creating CITY TV, which revolutionized local television in many places, he got bought out. Now he's honing in on what he calls 'Zoomers'...so far he's got CARP Canada, a glossy magazine called Zoomer which is chock full of ads and soon will be back on the air with Zoomer TV. He feels the money is with the older audience. He's a pretty bright guy. Should be interesting.

Gary said...

Why didn't someone on "your team" re-invent the truth? The young folks don't have the money that the older group has, or whatever group you were repping at the time. Who has the most disposable income? Certainly not an 18 year old.

Karen said...

I'm really ready for a new "invented truth," so I can stop groveling for every job. (Also, so I can stop writing for 18 year olds.)