This one’s a tough sell. But that’s what’s great about blog writing. You don’t have to sell it to anyone.
This is one of those ideas – you know it’s problematic – the evidence is weighted overwhelmingly against it – and yet, there is something compelling about it, something that speaks to me, and pleads with me not to let it go. Though maybe if I write about it, I’ll be able to. I hope so. It is terribly difficult to defend.
Fortunately, it’s about television and not something important, so it doesn’t really matter.
Okay, here we go. Feel free to ignore this entirely. Although there is always the chance there is something to it.
Conventional Wisdom argues that network shows today get lower ratings, because of the multiplicity of viewing options, as opposed to the time when there were only three major networks.
My Wisdom, such as it is, says,
It’s not – or at least not just – the expanded options that generate lower ratings.
It’s the shows.
Yeah, I know. But allow me play this out.
Shows I worked on in the seventies and eighties regularly drew audiences in the thirty millions, and in the case of The Cosby Show, more. This was admittedly before the fragmentation of the viewership due to cable. It was also before networks started breaking down audience viewership into specific demographic categories.
When I started, “the numbers” meant the total mathematical number of people who were watching the show. As audience measurement evolved, however, only the “highly coveted” 18-49 demographic began to be important. (Everyone else, it was perceived, bought false teeth adhesive, and nothing else. Even worse, they bought the same false teeth adhesive all the time. So the heck wid ‘em.)
A recent examination of the ratings indicates that the highest rated show during the first week in May garnered an audience of seventeen and a half million viewers. That was the most popular show in the country – seventeen and a half million. I once created a show called Family Man that had seventeen million viewers, and was cancelled.
Okay, so boo hoo.
Two things happened at the same time. And I’m not smart enough to say which caused which. Though let me take a stab at it. No, I can’t. I will just say what they are. Overreach averted. It’s a good thing.
What I recall taking place is that first, a revised evaluation of the viewership was instituted, in which the audience was measured not in terms of total viewing eyeballs (divided by two, which shortchanged the Cyclops audience but no system is perfect), but in terms demographic categorization.
This new way of counting was championed, I believe, by ABC, which, at that time, “that time” being the late 1970’s, ranked last in overall ratings, but first with younger viewers. This became their marketing pitch to advertisers.
“We may be last among ‘everybody’, but we’re first among people who count.”
This system of measurement, originated to make ABC to make itself look successful rather than a failure, eventually caught on. Before long, all the networks stopped caring about “everybody”, and started targeting only one segment of the viewership.
Then came MTV, and then, not necessarily in this order, came The Disney Channel – I recall participating on a “Whither Television?” panel during the mid-eighties when Anna was three and saying,
“To my daughter, The Disney Channel is a major television network.”
I was saying something important there. Profound and prophetic, even. With the expansion of cable alternatives, the traditional network branding lost its preeminent status, with its CBS eye and the NBC chimes – “bum, bum, bum.”
Now, whatever you watched was, to you, a major television network.
Today, Dr. M’s “major television network” is the one that shows House Hunters and House Hunters International. That’s all she watches. Taking a break now and then to catch Antiques Roadshow. I don’t think she’s watched a major television network in years.
Me? It’s ballgames, and reruns of Law & Order. Wherever they’re playing.
I’m not talking Ancient History here. It was not that long ago that shows like Seinfeld, Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond were earning substantial ratings, often double the size of the highest rated comedies today. And it’s not like those blockbusters of the past lacked cable competition. That universe was already up and running.
Which brings me to my point.
If the network series are truly worth watching, people will return to the networks and watch them.
The fact that that’s not happening suggests to me that they’re not.
I mean, what would stop people from coming back? Network shows don’t have a “maximum capacity.” It’s not the theater.
“Sorry, we’re sold out.”
If they want to watch network shows, they can. It’s not a bus.
“We’re filled up. Take the next one.”
There are even today still network programs that can attract a massive audience. Example: The Super Bowl. Despite the available alternatives. On Super Bowl Sunday”, the hundreds of cable stations don’t suddenly close down. They’re still out there, with their bass fishing and their cutthroat, cupcake competitions.
People want to watch the Super Bowl, so they return in droves to the network that’s broadcasting it. The same can be said for certain presidential speeches, and, before they started nominating movies nobody has seen, the Oscars. Yes, these are special events, but there’s no reason it can’t also happen with series.
Here’s what I wonder. Did people stop watching network shows – my category of special interest being the comedies – because of the competition from cable? Or did they lose interest, because the network comedies were no longer targeted to the overall audience, so they started looking for something else?
I don’t know the answer to that. But I do believe this. If there were a comedy that appealed successfully to everyone, the audience would show up in numbers rivaling those of their mega-hit predecessors.
Series like Seinfeld, Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond? They didn’t just succeed because there was less competition.
They succeeded because they were really, really good.
Are you buying that argument? Or am I entirely full of baloney?