I’m sure I’ve told this story before, but when I worked in Richmond, there was a story going around about that market’s switch from diary ratings measurement to people meter measurement that was always good for a chuckle.
First, if you haven’t read last week’s post about sweeps, you might want to check it out before going forward with this one.
The story involved two competing television stations and is probably true; at the very least, I can easily imagine that it could be true.
One of the stations was airing Jerry Springer. Against it, a competitor was airing a sweet, family-friendly show whose writers never even heard of the phrase “baby-daddy.” The show might have been Little House on the Prairie, but if it wasn’t that specific show, it was in that ballpark.
When ratings measurement in that market required viewers to write in a diary what they were watching, Little House on the Prairie did surprisingly well. It may even have beaten Springer in the ratings. When the market switched to people meters, as the story goes, Springer was suddenly way out ahead of that family show.
The difference, of course, is blamed on the fact that people who had to write down their viewing choices didn’t want to admit they were watching Springer, but when electronic measurement became the option, it was no longer up to them to “confess” their television consumption: it was recorded for them, no matter what they watched. They didn’t have the option of editing the data that was leaving their home.
The distinction is important: people don’t always want the world to know their “guilty pleasures.” Even though I can tell you that no one at any television station can look up anyone’s viewing habits by name or address: maybe you were one of the ones watching Springer instead of Michael Landon and company, but I’d have absolutely no way to ever figure that out unless you came to me and told me yourself.
The only surefire way to measure ratings completely and accurately is to require that every television, computer or mobile device capable of receiving broadcast signals be required to report to a central measurement agency exactly what’s being watched 24/7. The cost of such a project, obviously, would be enormous. But even if that hurdle was defeated, there’s that basic fear that one’s privacy would be lost that would keep people from allowing it. We’re so paranoid about “Big Brother” that we assume the worst before we bother to take the time to consider the rationality of the fear.
Would television be better or worse?
That’s the really scary part, isn’t it? Deep down, that’s the question that most people, if they think this hard about it, don’t want to think about any further. I think there’s a universal fear that all of television would turn into one long marathon of Jerry Springer.
Except for the fact that the first part of a five-part miniseries on History called The Bible actually gave the major networks a run for their money in ratings last week. Or that a show like Downton Abbey, broadcast by PBS (!!!) could be a hit with younger and older viewers. Yes, there’s clearly a market for shows other than the tabloids whose primary aim seems to be finding the identity of a baby’s father when the mother herself is too “active” to know for sure.
At least, if every device reported actual viewing to a central tabulating agency, everyone would at least know what was being watched. And you’d likely see more of whatever that is, Springer, Downton or the Bible.
The good news is that there’ll always be what is known as “counter-programming.” That’s shows that are intentionally different from what some other network is running at the same time. So when one network runs a hit comedy, another might try a police procedural if it doesn’t have a sitcom of its own strong enough to dethrone the competition. That’s just one example, but you get the idea.
Would you allow a company to keep an indefinite running tab on every television show you watched if they guaranteed that the only information about you connected to those shows were basic demographic information like age, gender, race, income, etc., or is would you feel that was too big of an invasion of your privacy?