I suppose NBC could now stand for a lot of things, but in the spirit of cancellation...er...I mean, upfront season (that's when the major networks roll out their lineups for the upcoming TV year), I figured Nielsen's Big Catastrophe was an appropriate title for this post. Nielsen, of course, being the corporate research firm that collects and tallies the information providing the backbone of the American television ratings system. We've all taken it for granted for decades that this information is accurate and, above all, meaningful. I think that the powers that be in the entertainment industry need to rethink that assumption, and moreover, how they make decisions based on the ratings.
I have spent several years as a media buyer, pouring over said Nielsen ratings in order to provide sound advertising recommendations for various companies, big and small. And I've spent even longer as an avid TV watcher, so I form the following theory based on solid scientific knowledge: the current system is worth about as much as a pile of horse crap.
I'm used to having TV shows I watch cancelled. I've perfected the art of choosing to watch those programs which become one-season, or worse, partial-season duds. So, it came as no surprise that this trend continued this year. Interesting to note: I'm probably the only person in America who watched three prime time shows on NBC this season. Let's face it - the Peacock network ain't what it used to be. "Awake" featured an interesting premise, but never caught on. "The Firm," despite being (or perhaps BECAUSE it was) my favorite new show on any network this season, scored some of the most abysmal ratings in the modern era. But the one that really stung me was the termination of "Harry's Law." The Kathy Bates-led legal drama featured some of the best writing and acting I've seen on prime time TV in a while. One could have made an argument that Bates was the best actor on any network show. But the real kicker: it was one of NBC's highest rated shows, pulling in about 9 million viewers a week. That's right...the lowest rated network by a country mile torpedoed one of its most watched programs. Why, you ask? Because the WRONG people were watching; people aged 50 and older. These poor, helpless creatures obviously spend no money on advertisers' products, rendering them worthless in the eyes of network executives. In all seriousness, the pervading theory for many years has been that older folks are set in their ways, and therefore, are less susceptible to changing their buying habits based on advertising messages. This theory, of course, is about as scientifically sound as my horse crap one mentioned above. Alas, the 18-49 demographic segment remains the one that dictates any and all critical network decisions.
The fact is, the TV viewing landscape has changed drastically just over the past few years. Very few of us even WATCH commercials any more, unless the surrounding program is called the Super Bowl. Yet no one in the vast pool of entertainment geniuses working in the television business has seemed to devise any innovative changes in the way products are advertised to their audiences. They're all sticking with the two-minute pods segmented into 15- and 30-second commercial spots. Do we still use horses and oxen to travel cross-country? No...because our evolving modern lifestyle dictated that we invent more appropriate methods of transportation. So why on Earth are they still adhering to this antiquated system in the world of TV advertising?
I can come up with several, at least somewhat feasible, ideas for revolutionizing the business just sitting here on my couch. Develop closer and more tailored relationships with your advertising partners. Realize that different age groups might gravitate toward different products, giving each segment value in certain circumstances. Use new technology to advance how you communicate your advertisers' messages to the audience - interactive overlays enabling viewers to opt in to certain offers, crawls on the bottom of the screen (hell, they already feature those annoying network promos down there like every other minute), use interactive Web sites/micro-sites to capture email addresses and other pertinent audience info...and on and on. Am I the only one with half a clue here?
It bears mentioning that NBC itself commissioned a research report to demonstrate that the prevailing "wisdom" regarding older audiences was not necessarily correct. And then they went and used the same baseless paradigm in making the decision regarding "Harry's Law." Given that TV episodes are taped well in advance, it was quite poetic that after having gotten the axe on Friday, "Harry's Law" aired what may have been its best episode yet on Sunday. AND...in a laugh-out-loud inspiring move, show-runner, David E. Kelley obviously had the actors re-shoot the opening scenes at the last minute, as Bates' wisecracking character, Harriet Korn, upon being awoken at 6am, lamented how getting old sucks, and how she longed for the days when she was 18-49.
If you ever find episodes of "Harry's Law" online or elsewhere, I suggest Sunday's brilliant The Whole Truth, amd last November's American Girl. And here's hoping that Kathy Bates lands another series soon. Maybe the "important" viewers will come along for the ride next time.