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Life After Nielsen

Grab your soda and popcorn and turn on the TV! The hurricane starts in five minutes!

By Elizabeth Spiers - August 31, 2005

"All I want out of life is a 30 share and a 20 rating," says scheming network producer Diana Christensen in Sidney Lumet's scathing 1976 satire about television news, Network. The film was meant to be an indictment of the industry's increasing commercialization, but nearly 30 years later "All I want out of life is a 30 share and a 20 rating" is less parody than reality for TV news producers. And thanks to better available data on consumer viewing habits, it's only going to get worse. Or better, depending on how you feel about the ever-diminishing lines between news and entertainment.

Housebound in the Florida panhandle thanks to Katrina, I unintentionally subjected myself to several days of hurricane-related TV news coverage from Sunday until yesterday when the newsertainment complex was (and still is) out in full force. While flipping between news networks, I came across a CNN report from a New Orleans affiliate wherein a reporter, crouched behind what appeared to be some sort of building, announced to the camera that he was going in for a closer look at the wind and rain and practically crawled to a mailbox on the street several yards away. The correspondent (IDed as Brian Andrews on mb's own TVNewser) struggled to keep his balance and his footing as he huddled behind the mailbox and reported that weather conditions were, well, windy and rainy—a fact that was readily apparent before Andrews nearly got blown away trying to make it to the mailbox. The camera stayed in pretty much the same place, so the only difference to the viewer between Andrews dangerously exposed to the elements with only the US Postal Service to protect him and Andrews under the noticeably safer cover of the building was, perhaps, the level of viewer concern for Andrews' safety.

There is, of course, concrete value to front-line hurricane coverage. Unlike wall-to-wall reportage about a single missing white girl in Aruba or public countdowns to feeding tube removal, the physical devastation of a major American city is indisputably a front-page news story. And the imperative to provide detailed information about what's happening is particularly crucial for people who are directly affected by the storm. But let's face it: endless non-stop shots of wind and rain and television anchors clutching stationary objects and reporting that it's windy and rainy is less news than car-wreck entertainment. Viewers know it's windy and rainy—it's a hurricane. While I appreciate Anderson Cooper's efforts, part of me wants to shake him and yell, "what are you doing outdoors in the middle of a hurricane?! Get the hell inside!"

At some point, numb from all the footage of TV reporters walking near-horizontally in slow motion against gusting winds, I switched to CNBC, which I fully expected to be talking about the economic impact of the hurricane. On the screen was a blustery Jim Cramer, eyes bulging as he bounced manically around the set yelling that he was sick of hearing about Hurricane Katrina, a sentiment I was beginning to share despite multiple cancelled flights back to New York, palm trees bending at 90 degree angles outside and a very practical need to know what was going on.

Cramer's show, "Mad Money" (or, as I've been affectionately calling it, "Crazy Eddie Goes to the Buy Side"), is another clear demonstration of ratings-driven news programming. If stunt hurricane reporting is the high end of the news-and-entertainment continuum and the Daily Show is the low end, Cramer falls directly in the middle. Mad Money has managed, in the last few months, to turn an otherwise moribund time slot (6PM) into a success. Naturally, CNBC fell backwards into it. After a painful history of badly targeted programs and a failure to realize that the finance people who watch the network probably don't know who Tina Brown is and don't think Dennis Miller's funny, they've finally found their man. (One network exec even bragged to the press that the show had grown with absolutely no internal promotion, as if that made CNBC look more competent rather than less.)

Cramer yells at viewers, makes them laugh, talks fast and shoves ostensibly dry information about public equities down their throats in a way that makes it enjoyable. It's hugely entertaining. And at the end of the day, the show is valuable because he often tells viewers things they don't want to hear (that stock you just bought sucks) and that they'd be unwilling to accept were it not garnished with the fun.

But if there's a negative effect to 30 share/20 rating imperative, it's that the market has an obvious incentive to make demagogues of news networks. As Howard Beale, Network's fictional disenchanted broadcaster tells his audience, "We'll tell you anything you want to hear."

And maybe they already are. Look at the disparities between print and television news coverage. While every major newspaper is leading with stories about Katrina, the ratio of Katrina stories-to-other news is clearly lower in print. This is perhaps a result of print publications having less specific data about which precise stories readers want to see. Overall circulation numbers don't reveal much about which stories in the newspaper are being skimmed or skipped entirely, and spot focus groups and polling don't provide the same level of immediate and consistent feedback as Nielsen ratings.

But ultimately, if commercialization means more people are paying attention to the news in general, we'll take the good with the bad. If network truly is, to use another Networkism, the "boredom-killing business," it's also the "ignorance-killing business" and the former is needed to accomplish the latter, so be it.

And by the way, here are your Monday Katrina-related ratings (via TVNewser):

Total day: FNC: 2,815,000 / CNN: 1,837,000 / MSNBC: 679,000
Primetime: FNC: 3,398,000 / CNN: 2,638,000 / MSNBC: 876,000
25-54 demographic:
Total day: FNC: 1,046,000 / CNN: 773,000 / MSNBC: 340,000
Primetime: FNC: 1,245,000 / CNN: 1,269,000 / MSNBC: 464,000

Elizabeth Spiers is the editor-in-chief of mediabistro.com



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