TV & Showbiz

Who Do You Want Watching What You’re Watching?


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.

Your Turn:
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?


  1. Patrick, Thought provoking post but I agree with Diana that we do that everyday with our computers! Maybe tracking our guilty TV pleasures ( Scandals)  it won’t be too long away with Internet TV.

    1. Judi Knight We do, but people can disable cookies and to an extent they feel like they have more privacy than they may realize. Do you think the general public would be pleased with this, or do you think it’d be a fight against “Big Brother”?

  2. (I love Downton Abbey. I have to admit I was really surprised to see PBS in the credits. I don’t usually associate them with anything I would enjoy watching.)
    Age, gender, race, income… I feel like I am buying batteries from a RadioShack.
    Frankly, I can stomach tracking and logging much better from the government than from privately held corporations. If receivers and such devices collected this information, it would likely be solely for the financial benefit of television networks. To say there is a public interest involved would be quite a reach, and I think a public interest, a significant one, would have to be involved for this to be made possible.
    There are several problems with this idea. The first of which, of course, is that the tin foil crowd would go nuts over the presumed invasion of their privacy.
    Then there is the fact that I don’t enjoy everything I watch. Just because I’m watching it doesn’t mean I want to see more of it. Just because my TV is used to watch it doesn’t mean it’s a member of my household watching it.
    I would much prefer a small happy face/sad face icon in some corner of the screen, where you could choose either depending on whether you liked the show or not. Of course, you could turn this off entirely through a setting. This should be much easier to implement and probably a lot more cost-effectively.
    On one last note, maybe you could argue that there is a social/cultural benefit to not implementing this technology. Let us say that a show like Jersey Shore is being aired. You know it’s garbage, you tell everyone so, and you feel a little dumber after each episode, but you watch it anyway. Same for your friends. You draw the curtains and watch the beautiful people get drunk and whatnot. Logically, you think mankind could produce something with a higher production value and more intellectual content, but it’s like a bad car wreck, you just can’t look away. Maybe here is where the lack of that technology could be helpful: if the network can see that everyone loves watching garbage, they will produce more of it. If, on the other hand, all they have to go on is what people are saying in public, then perhaps there is hope for us yet.

    1. msalakka Interesting points, Mika. I think there’s something of that Jersey Shore effect already happening in a way; why else would that show have done so well from the start?!? 🙂 
      There’s also a lot to the point of people not enjoying what they’re watching. Perhaps the answer to that is that while they may not “love” what they’re watching, they had to have at least felt it was the lesser of multiple other evils, so that in itself elevates even a mediocre program over the others that didn’t get the “vote” of the tune-in.
      A lot of people these days are doing other things while the television is on. Gone are the days — though shows like “Lost” tried hard to return us to them — when viewers sat with their eyes glued to the screen. A growing number, in fact, watch the television screen while they’re watching their computer screen. I know I do.

  3. I haven’t watching TV for at least two weeks and the only show I wanted to watch was teh new series Bunheads. if I ever switch on my TV was on friday at 950pm to watch the show but I skipped it last night.
    I don’t think I like people to track my viewing but if that was to improved on the TV program than I think it’s no harm done. DianaCT  was right 🙂

  4. It is funny, but that is exactly what we do on the internet when we have our “cookies” enabled. They track our every move on the internet.

    1. DianaCT True, but then this is a case where people wouldn’t be able to disable cookies. They wouldn’t be able to opt-out, because this “better” system would require their information. Do you think that’d be well-received?

  5. I would be fine with that, to be honest.  As long as the data they were collecting didn’t identify me specifically then I don’t see the problem.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.