Friday, January 10, 2014

"Thin Ice Proposal"

This is definitely a minority opinion.  In fact, there may be nobody else at all who believes this.  I myself am not convinced that I am “all in” on this assertion.  Though my reservations do not inhibit me from providing it a public airing. 

Okay, here we go.  Please don’t throw things until I’m done.  Or even better, do not throw things at all.  If you must respond contrarily, I would prefer that you confine you reactions to “Oh, pshaw!”  I can handle “Oh, pshaw!”  Although less so when it’s accompanied by a hostile expression.  I am an extremely sensitive person.

(Preliminary Note:  Although today is January 10, 2014, this post was originally written on December 13, 2013.  For reasons too boring to go into, I was unable to move it up in the schedule, giving its current positioning less the excitement of  “Breaking News” than the appealing quaintness of a washed-ashore blog-post-in-a-bottle.)   

The weekly television ratings published in the paper on December 11, 2013
indicated that the live production of The Sound of Music ranked second overall – the other “Top Five” entries being football.  This despite my impassioned imprecations that, owing to the severe injuries incurred for our entertainment, we should stop watching it.  I don’t blame those viewers; I continue to watch football myself.  Though I maintain the innate decency of feeling guilty about it.  Who knows?  Perhaps a substantial percentage of the 19.06 millions taking in the Panthers-Saints game also felt badly while they were watching it.  It’s impossible to say, the ratings measuring only “volume of viewership”, not “volume of guilty viewership.” 

Before I get to my actual point, let me pause briefly to note that, despite its universally perceived sappiness – movie co-star Christopher Plummer once disparaged the show as “The Sound of Mucus” – NBC’s live presentation of The Sound of Music garnered a gargantuan-by-today’s-standards-sized-audience of 18.62 million, reportedly two to three times the size of NBC’s own projections, and almost doubling the viewership of perennial Emmy “Best Comedy Series” winner Modern Family.

So it’s not just me (who’s a sucker for sappiness).  I just wanted that on the record before moving on.


Conventional wisdom, by which in this case I mean virtually everybody, agrees that the reason across-the-board audience size for network television shows is not as large as it used to be is that viewers, who once had a choice between only three programs (those offered by the three networks), now have hundreds of alternatives instead.  (One of them, however, does not seem to be turning the television off entirely.  That is apparently like putting out the fire in the cave – cold, dark and scary.)  

It is at this point that I will add for no reason other than personal self-aggrandizement that I once had a TV show (Family Man) that was cancelled despite having an audience of seventeen million viewers.  
Which would have placed it third in the December 11th ratings.  (A fact about as meaningful as “I once bought a hotdog for ten cents.”  The ten-cent hotdog is ancient history, as is the “three-program” viewing arrangement that got us cancelled with seventeen million viewers because it wasn’t twenty-five million viewers.)  

Less people are watching the networks’ offerings than they did in years gone by, and everyone says that’s because there are more choices.  But, consider for a moment if you are not totally swamped in your overly busy lives, an alternative explanation; to wit:  The ratings for network series are lower not because of the increased competition but because the television-viewing audience does not sufficiently like the shows. 

Why would I say that?

Because when, like say, the Super Bowl rolls around, despite all those myriad alternatives, which do not abruptly stop broadcasting when the Super Bowl comes on,

The audience…

Comes back. 

(To the tune, in the case of Super Bowl XLVII, of 108.41 millions viewers.  And as they did, to a lesser but still impressive degree for The Sound of Music.)

“Thin Ice Theory” Summary:  Give the audience something worth watching, and despite the volume of competing offerings,

They will show up and watch it.

Networks and show makers can feel comforted by the rationalization that the viewing universe has changed.  But what if the truth is that they are simply making shows that are not as appealing as the shows that were once enjoyed by twice as many or more people?

Or maybe they didn’t enjoy those shows, he suggests, conscientiously rounding out the conversation.  There was once this NBC audience-measurement executive named Paul Klein who, in the sixties when there were three viewing choices, coined the concept:  

“Least Objectionable Program.” 

What Klein’s theory asserted was that, with the availability of only three options, the viewer inevitably chose, not necessarily a program they particularly liked, but simply the television offering they disliked the least.  The large audience would then be explained less by their enthusiasm for the show they were watching than for their relative disdain for the shows that were programmed against it.

That’s possible.

But we cannot entirely rule out the possibility that the networks and show creators have lost their ability to attract the masses.

Last paragraph before I am done here.  Maybe they don’t care about the masses anymore, like we did, or, forced to homogenize our product, were required to.  Maybe there’s an updated programming model in play, wherein, like with cable news hosts, you can make millions appealing to a loyal and passionate minority, owing to a revamped marketing strategy, prescribing that, rather than by casting the traditional wide net, sponsors can to rake in huge bucks appealing to a niche audience, the preponderance of whom, the research shows, are interested in their product.

Still, all things being equal, wouldn’t you rather have an audience of thirty-plus million watching your sitcom (The Cosby Show) than six-point-two-seven million (Last Man Standing)?

Nobody’s stopping audiences from watching the networks’ offerings in healthier numbers.

They just don’t want to.

(Asserts a lonely and not entirely certain “Voice in the Wilderness.”)


Wendy M. Grossman said...

One problem that TV shows have today that they didn't have before DVDs and streaming made it really practical to pick up any series at any time and watch it however you wanted is that they're competing with the entire back catalogue. This is especially true of dramas - if you're tired of REVENGE, ONCE UPON A TIME, AND SCANDAL, you can opt out in favor of watching BREAKING BAD and THE SOPRANOS from start to finish.

I'm actually agreeing with you, just adding another factor. Although I thought even at the time that the 1990s were a golden moment in TV comedy: SEINFELD, FRIENDS, FRASIER, and others all on. This year, for the first time since I can remember, there was only one new comedy I thought worth sticking with (MOM), and there are hardly any older ones I want to keep watching. Currently, I think we're in a golden moment in TV drama, though most of the great ones are shorter cable seasons, not network shows (THE GOOD WIFE being the exception).


Canda said...

It isn't that the networks have "lost" audience, it's that they DON'T WANT the audiences they used to have. They are so fixated on the young demographic for advertising purposes, they mostly program shows that are ensemble comedies featuring young people.

The young writers of these shows often have little experience in fleshing out a story, or digging for something emotionally unique or truly funny. They and the network are happy with smiles at best, recognition at the least (Hey, those people are my age eating in that trendy restaurant).

Aside from the very top comedies - Modern Family, etc, most sitcoms are simply not that good or interesting.

Amaflix said...

The theory of the Least Objectionable program may have been valid a few years ago but no longer. As Wendy pointed out, Netflix and Amazon are excellent alternatives to scheduled programs. There are others, those are just the 2 I'm familiar with. No longer am I trapped in what TV is showing on tonight's grid. I have other options incl. turning the damn thing off, which I often do. Surprisingly, people are still writing books! I'm one of the few who did cut the cable about 5 years ago. I'm familiar with the networks offerings. They don't program for my generation (which is also yours, E.), and why should they? We olders may have some money stashed, but we aren't going to spend cuz we're going to take it with us! Gotta protect that nest egg, right? No trips to Vegas with Albert Brooks. If we live long enough, we could run out of money. But I stray a bit from the topic.

I'll bet Christopher Plummer got more than 1 take on every song he supposedly sang in his version of the SOM. But he's going to degrade those who did in 1 take? All of whom, incidentally, sing a hell of a lot better than he did. But I guess when you get to be 185 years old, you can say anything about anyone regardless of sense or sensibilities. And that's all I have to say about that!