Monday, August 9, 2010

Big TV ratings? Not like in my day, whippersnapper!

Mystery voices
Drowned out by too much choice
Not to mention
The sad waste of this wonderful invention
Maintaining radio silence from now on.

Elvis Costello, Radio Silence

Mr. Costello, who is about a year and a half older than I am, writes this lyric about radio being a wonderful invention, but I want to say the same about television, the medium that replaced it as the mass entertainment source. I grew up with TV always existing, while my parents could remember the time before it was mass culture. The TV industry now worries about being eclipsed by the Internet, and of course I'm old enough to tell the young folks about a time before the Internet.

I don't currently watch TV, at least not on my TV, which is connected to a DVD player but not a cable or dish or even an antenna. As I have said before, I'm a broke-ass mofo, but I'm not poverty stricken. I could find the money in my monthly budget to spring for cable TV, whether that's $70 or $100 or whatever, I just don't see that it produces value equal to that cost. I pay about $70 a month total to be connected to the Internet and to have a phone. That cost is easily justified. That's a friggin' bargain.

There are some things I might like to watch live, but very few, and watching them free on the web or paying for a show on iTunes if necessary makes sense to me. I made a habit of watching Keith Olbermann when I had a TV, and sometimes I'd also watch Rachel Maddow. I don't make a habit of them anymore. I like both of them, but Keith lives on a mix of snark and high dudgeon that gets to be too much for me sometimes. Rachel tends towards being smarter and nicer than Keith and it doesn't always play well on TV. That said, if there is going to be a point made on TV that is almost exactly the argument I would make, it's going to be made by Jon Stewart, a decoded Stephen Colbert or Rachel Maddow.

Rachel is currently in a pissing contest with Bill O'Reilly. Let me correct that. BillO thinks it's a pissing contest, Rachel thinks it's a debate. He's winning the pissing contest, she's winning the debate. She says that Fox News has a consistent pattern of race baiting, more pronounced now since Obama was elected, and that the Shirley Sherrod incident was just the latest example. O'Reilly actually responded, which is notable because he pointedly ignores Keith Olbermann who snarks at him regularly. His response was to call her a "loon" and point out that Fox News has much higher ratings than MSNBC, the cable news outfit where Rachel works. Her counter-argument to his "look at my massive ratings" posture is to note that in that particular pissing contest, both his show and Rachel's show are getting rained on by SpongeBob SquarePants.

Bringing facts to a pissing contest. Isn't that just like a girl?

It's a very different world from the one of my youth. We still talk about ratings because there is still a major industry that cares about ratings, but it's like talking about boxing or horse racing. Some people still kind of care about those sports, but when I was a kid, those sports were big damn deals, not fading memories.

Consider the Beatles on Sullivan. I am just old enough to remember it vividly, since I turned eight years old about a month and a half before. 23 million TV sets tuned in that night, which translates to over 70 million viewers in a nation of 190 million people. Not a majority, but a very sizable minority, roughly three out of every eight people. The Beatles made a return appearance the next week and a similar number of sets tuned in, only slightly less.

The thing is, in 1964 this wasn't all that remarkable. The Beverly Hillbillies was the number one rated show for the entire season. In 1964, the most watched episode of the show titled The Giant Jack Rabbit got more viewers than the second appearance of the Beatles on Sullivan but slightly less than the first. Nine times in 1964, more than 20 million sets tuned into The Beverly Hillbillies. These records only go back to 1961, but no other show has nine spots from a single season in the top 100 of all time. In 1977, a very special TV event, the eight part mini-series Roots, put all eight of its episodes in the top 100 shows of the last fifty years. It's possible I Love Lucy had greater saturation in its day, but the Nielsen records only go back to 1961 and there were less TV sets in the 1950s than in the 1960s.

It was a much less fragmented nation when I was a kid, and not just politically. There was less choice than there is today because there were less choices. TV had three major commercial networks in theory, but in terms of ratings there was one leader, CBS. They dominated the Top Twenty shows year in and year out in the 1960s. NBC trailed, sometimes badly, and ABC was a distant third. In a cosmopolitan place like the San Francisco Bay Area, we also had a local independent station, Channel 2 KTVU, and the educational station, KQED Channel 9, which was not yet called PBS. But until UHF came along in the mid-sixties, that was it.

The ratings giant of today is American Idol. No other show comes close to its dominance of the past decade. It is fading from its peak viewership, when about 37 million people would tune in. That's 37 million out of a population of about 300 million, which is roughly one in every eight people in the country at its highest, now down to about one in ten. In the 1960s, the highest rated show could expect about one third of the public would be watching.

More than that, American Idol might be better titled Confederate Idol. Hicks like it better than city slickers, which explains why so many winners are from the South, including the aptly named non-entity Taylor Hicks. On my other blog, it's obvious that supermarket rags think Carrie Underwood, the most country tinged winner in the show's history, is the right fit for their older and unsophisticated demographic, while recording stars who can sell many more times records like Lady Gaga or Fergie are barely noticed at all by the supermarket rags, though they are popular in the Internet gossip pages.

Part of the reason I write this is because I'm really noticing not being the target market anymore for a lot of popular culture, TV, movies and music. There were times in the past when I did watch the most popular TV show or listen to the most popular music. I have seen several of the biggest grossing movies of the year over the past decade, but not all of them. The market has fragmented seriously.

When it comes to the news, I like stuff that teaches me something, discussed by people who know more than I do and reach interesting conclusions. I find that on the Internet from time to time, but on TV, not so much. If I may be allowed a moment with no false modesty, catering to an audience of people as smart or smarter than Matty Boy is not a mass market, and there just isn't that much money in it.


Abu Scooter said...

Don't dismiss the impact of the size of television sets. Once the industry figured out how to produce smaller sets cheaply and reliably, ratings fragmentation started getting serious. Families still used majority vote (or parental fiat) to decide what to watch in the living room, but now the "dissidents" could retire to their bedrooms and watch their respective choices on their own 19-inch sets.

Fran said...

Oh Matty, this is Lotsasplain' gold. You have succinctly 'splained so much right here in this post.

Abu Scooter is right, but it goes even further, beyond their own sets, they can watch on phones,iPods, iPhones, FloTV and more.

Now, having spent the majority of my adult life working in the TV business in general and then for the giant ratings machine, I can tell you what you already know... things have changed.

Audiences are different, audience (so-called) quality is held up against quantity. (Take that Mr. Pissing Contest O'Reilly!) It is all smoke and mirrors in the end anyway, I don't have to tell a maths guy like you something like that.

Now I will say that there is something to be said about quality vs. quantity thing. Just because Wal-mart is bigger it does not mean it is better.

As for the old days... as Abu put it, one TV in the house. 3 networks, maybe an independent or two in big markets. That was it. It was called mass media for a reason - reach the masses.

Now it is hyper-fragmented media and quantity has diminished quality somewhat. Not that Granny Clampett was the nadir of quality!!

Matty Boy said...

Abu: You had a 19 inch TV in your bedroom? Your parents must have been rich! I was very happy to have a portable TV in my bedroom back in the late 60s, though of course, if I wanted to watch in color, I'd have to go to the living room.

Fran: Thanks for your comments. I was obviously stepping into DCap's territory with this post, so I checked in with him by e-mail and he gave the seal of approval to my numbers. He says the data gathering methods of today are far superior to the methods from the 60s, but the expansion of choices did coincide with the shrinking of market share.

As for quantity/quality, I would argue that the best ten shows from the 21st Century are nearly as good as the best ten shows from the 20th Century, and if the split is instead 1949-1989 vs. 1990-2010, the last twenty one years crush the forty one that preceded them. HBO is a big reason for the improvement in quality, but there's a lot of other reasons as well, not least of which are two shows that technically started in 1989, The Simpsons and Seinfeld.

Abu Scooter said...

My family did indeed have several TVs, but not until the mid-70s. Even at that, the extra sets were hand-me-downs from friends and neighbors. Mine was a 13" b/w set with a broken VHF dial. Once you used pliers to change the channel, it worked just fine.

Matty Boy said...

Ah yes, pliers to change TV channels. I have no idea what value they had as tools before the invention of TV, but I've been told there were other uses.

dguzman said...

Great post and discussion, folks!

It's definitely true that ratings pretty much don't matter anymore. "Sweeps" barely get the notice they used to anymore, and Glenn Beck, whose ratings are constantly in the toilet, continues to rant and make up stuff on Faux.

If it weren't for channels like History/History International, the Science Channel, and NatGeo, along with people like Stewart, Maddow, and Colbert, I'd never watch TV.

BTW, I STILL don't have a TV in my bedroom!