Tuesday, April 7, 2009


Years ago, I watched a documentary on PBS that came to a disturbing conclusion about the television rating system. This was no phony-baloney opinionator talking off the top of his head like, well, okay, me. The producers interviewed many knowledgeable people in the field. These guys were legit. Wait, I’m legit, in that I don’t make stuff up. These guys were authoritative.

The conclusion the PBS documentary came to was this: The ratings system does not accurately measure what the ratings companies claim it accurately measures, that being, the size of the audience watching the show. And that’s its whole job. So, practically then, it doesn’t do anything.

Except it does. I – and every other creator of a television show – have had shows cancelled because of low ratings. This is a tangible consequence of the system. And a highly visible one as well. I don’t know about where you live, but in L.A., the ratings are printed in the paper every Wednesday morning, like baseball standings.

You can see exactly where your show ranks against all the other shows on the air, most importantly, your competition – the shows airing on the other networks at the same time. As a show runner, you get the ratings delivered to your office. But you don’t have to wait that long. You can monitor your entire future from the comfort of your own breakfast, over a bowl of spoon-sized Shredded Wheat.

Try and imagine the impact this revelation has on a television person. Your show’s fate depends entirely on the ratings. And a PBS documentary says the ratings aren’t accurate. Information of this nature can take your breath away. Your show’s getting cancelled as a result of a system that doesn’t accurately measure what is it that got your show cancelled – the number of people watching the show.

That’s like making medical decisions based on information from a thermometer than doesn’t accurately measure temperature.

What the heck is going on?!

What’s going on is this. Commercial television networks sell advertising time based on the size of the audience watching a particular show. Today it’s more about the size of a segment of the audience – the younger segment – but it’s still about the size. The larger the size of the younger audience watching the show, the more the networks can command from the advertisers.

And how is the size of the audience measured?

It’s measured by the ratings.

As mentioned, a show’s cancellation or renewal is also dependent on the size of the audience. And how is the size of that audience measured?

It’s measured by the ratings.

But hold on there, Baba Louie. That PBS documentary reported that the ratings don’t accurately measure the size the audience.

And here’s the part that make me crazy. Are you ready?

It doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t?

No, sir. You see, my boy, there’s a system in place. Everyone’s a party to it – the owners of the shows, the networks, the advertisers. This system allows business to be conducted in a reasonable and comprehensible manner, allowing everything run smoothly. It is able to run smoothly, because the system is based on an Agreement that’s accepted by everybody involved. And that Agreement is this:

The ratings accurately measure the size of the audience.

But they don….

Stop it! You want chaos in the business process? No way to measure if a show is a hit or a flop, no way of determining the price of the commercials, is that what you want? Because that’s exactly what you’ll get if you don’t have an Agreement. Business requires a mutually acceptable measuring apparatus. It establishes a context in which the conversation can take place. You got agreed-upon “numbers”, you can talk business.

It doesn’t matter that the “numbers” aren’t accurate?

Oh, Early, you’re so na├»ve.

But it’s based on a lie.

An agreed-upon lie.

The truth doesn’t matter?

Sometimes the truth is actually the enemy.

It is?

Enron was one of the most highly respected companies in America. They had stadiums named after them. Ken Lay’s on Larry King.

Respected publications agree: Enron employs an “innovative business model.” Wall Street agrees. They promote the stock to their clients. Investors agree. The stock goes through the roof. Making everyone involved in the Agreement – Enron, its employees and its stockholders – rich and happy.


A reporter carefully studies Enron’s “innovative business model” and concludes that “The Emperor has no clothes.” Subsequent investigations back the reporter up.

This revelation sends Enron stock plummeting to zero. Enron employees lose their jobs and their pensions. Arthur Anderson, a respected accounting firm, goes out of business. Enron executives go to prison.

This may sound like a foolish question, but who’s the Bad Guy in this monumental collapse, Enron and its enablers, or the reporter who refused to play along, obliterating the Agreement?

Are you kidding me?

Who’s the Bad Guy?

The reporter was simply telling the truth.

The truth brought it all down. The Agreement made everyone rich and happy.

But if something’s wrong, it’s bound to come crashing to the ground sooner or later.

Really? They’re still reporting the ratings.


impwork said...

Sorry to be the first commenter and only to pick up on one little line...

"That’s like making medical decisions based on information from a thermometer than doesn’t accurately measure temperature."

I can't really talk about medical uses of thermometers but I spent an afternoon at University learning that measuring room temperature is far more complicated than you would ever imagine.

In one room we took measurements of temperature at 8 different positions using about a dozen different types of thermometers. The key revelation of the afternoon was that the temperature in the room varied quite a lot depending on not just the location but what kind of thermometer you used.

The upshot of that was that you had to pick what you thought the best kind of thermometer was and put it in the best spot that you could to control heating and air conditioning systems. No matter how hard you tried though sometimes some parts of the room might be too cold or too hot.

The other important lesson was that if some parts of the room might be too cold or too hot too much of the time while you could move the chair from that spot you might instead move the thermometer or put a different kind of thermometer in instead.

If you want a far more interesting take on a similar problem take a look at Sam's problem with a new poverty income index in the West Wing episode "The Indians in the Lobby".

Jess Kiley said...

You are so right that the system doesn't match reality. The more I hear about what guides decisions, the more opportunities for change I notice, based on Joe-average, which I assume is the target.

Like the green triangles theory, it's basing decision making on the past instead of reaching into the future for possiblities. Take all these new station-affiliated websites popping up.

I may decide to watch a show for a very random reason, say Chris Matthews from MSNBC humanized it on Ellen. I tune in, then check out the website, and then realize the website is even more alive (and interactive) than the show.

Of course I want to be a part of that two-way street, who doesn't? The only thing about commercials that turns me off is seeing the exact same one over and over. Goes against logic, because commercials are EXPENSIVE. But, a variety of commercials for the same product makes me want to buy it. I know, dumb.

You probably know better than I do who's in charge of this structure that keeps everything running. And numbers are important yes, but so is reaching forward into the land of possibility, before surrendering to a graph or spread sheet.

A mason once told me, as we both gazed at a very important document that would decide both of our futures (protecting mine, but leaving his open)..."it's just a piece of paper."

But it was official, part of me knew that and needed it to be. It wasn't even that he stared deeply into my cerebellum. "It's just a piece of paper." I acknowledged his truth, but moved forward just like anyone else.

Turned out he was right, I held in my hand, not a piece of paper, but a brick. Strange!

Jess Kiley said...

Plus, it doesn't hurt that bloggers work for breadcrumbs.

Dan said...

This kind of "agreement" is one of the main topics in the field of philosophy known as semiotics. The ratings, are a "sign" communicating information. The information only exists in the "receiver's" head. The ratings have meaning only because we give them meaning, as a community. But the same can be said of any other sign...a word, an image, anything.

It was my impression that in recent days networks had taken other factors into consideration, such as the wealth of the audience. Shows like Friday Night Lights and The Office don't have high ratings, but they have wealthy audiences, and those audiences don't just casually tune in. They buy DVDs and iTunes downloads, something that can be measures without as much inference.

A. Buck Short said...

Blimey! So you’re saying size matters? Of course the corollary relates to those who insist they won’t watch a certain show because it’s tasteless, insipid, they don’t want to “support” a certain individual or encourage a particular behavior or viewpoint. Clue: IT DOESN’T MATTER, unless you happen to be one of the families hooked up to a Neilson meter. Or at least until your boycott/crusade takes off to the point some family with a box gets sucked into it.

We actually were a Neilson family years ago, Consented almost entirely out of the belief that we could influence the quality of television programming by essentially “voting with our eyes and ears” for the obviously high quality and cerebral shows a high quality family such as ours would be watching. In a way, it was self-fulfilling. Yes we watched a lot of good stuff, but, more significantly, knowing that we were being monitored by big brother (even in the aggregate), at least 3 out of the 4 of us were embarrassed to watch crap – except maybe for a few minutes, which we hoped the box would interpret as meaning even a family that intended to like that dreck, still couldn’t stand it for more than a few minutes. (Undoubtedly, in some circles this can be a rationalization for only surfing the free porn on the internet.

With our credo, it’s amazing professional wrestling is still on the air. Apparently others in or Nielson Class of ’99 did not journey through life with the same level of circumspection.

It also amazes the high standards we were held to, and the care Neilson took to assure that no one was “cheating,” when, in the real world, it didn’t matter. If the box truly measured our viewing habits, and those synched up nicely with other families of similar demographics filling out diaries, that might demonstrate the reliability of the diaries, but I believe a certain doctor in a certain W. Coast household would suggest this says nothing about the validity of either. Although it very well might explain why the highest rated program during our Neilson years happened to be the Michael Crighton miniseries “Chronbach’s Alpha.”

PS: Impworks’ thermometric observation on location, location, location is well taken. Which is the second reason I always prefer to stick with the rectal. And btw, how many viewings with a significant other did it take you to realize that, even here in Texas, the Friday Night Lights football series is actually a chick flick?

Joe said...


I don't know if you can charge more for space on this blog based on comment length. But you might wanna try.

Kante Luis said...