Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"The Real Reason Shows Don't Get Big Ratings Anymore"

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.

Nostalgia Time.

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.

Moving on…

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?


Andrew Orenstein said...

Hi Earl,

Hope you are well. Really interesting post. At first I disagreed but by the end I think you make a great point. What I wonder is, what does it mean that the biggest show on TV in overall numbers is NCIS? The show is basically Mannix - the story telling is so old - and it is not young and sexy... yet it is consistently in the top 5. Maybe it is because it appeals to the largest cross section of people? It isn't trying to grab the 18-39 crowd? You would think other networks would analyze this and maybe stop developing shows like community where 4 million people watch. I just don't get it.

Let's have lunch. Gary had the nerve to go back to work so screw him, maybe he can join via Skype.


Pizzagod said...

Earl, I buy into your idea that the programs aren't up to the standards that some of the better efforts of the past were.

Right now once you get past The Big Bang Theory there isn't much where the actors shine and the scripts are funny-but to me that show is a good example of what's wrong with television right now.

Talented cast, and a lot of jokes-but no connection. I'm bright. As bright as the main cast? No. I'm socially awkward, but as awkward as the main cast? No (hopefully).

The show is more like a cartoon to me with real actors instead of animation. The bar has been lowered (and I am quite fond of this show, you'd hate to see what I have to say about shows I don't like...) and it's one of the best of a bad lot.

Just like Lucy stayed around forever, people still gravitate to Mayberry, nothing touches Barney Miller, or the brilliance of the Mary Tyler Moore Show or MASH.

Life goes on.

Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; maybe the TV fad is coming to an end?


canda said...

Earl, you are right, the network is actively looking to shred itself in most cases of audience that isn't 18 to 34. In their minds, you appeal to this group by having young, sexy characters, and pushing the envelope. They are not interested in relatable characters, they are interested in high concept things like "The B*** in Apartment 23". That will always have limited appeal, and in most cases the network is looking for a certain gender - women. Or a certain look. ABC's shows often look the same, as does NBC's comedy block that no one watches(30 Rock, Community, etc.). 30 Rock is the perfect example of many comedies today - they are mockumentaries. They avoid real emotion at all costs. Great shows require the audience to invest emotionally. Today's network execs think real emotion isn't hip. They want the kind of entertainment that can translate to computers, smart phones, etc. Cool is the rule. The Cosby Show would work today for one reason - it had a huge audience in every demographic, including the most treasured to the execs of today (18 to 34, and 18 to 49). But Cosby was about Family, Love, respect, and identifiable situations. Good luck pitching that to a network today.