Cracker by Damian Christie


Go Figure

I realise a lot of you don’t have the time or inclination to delve into the comment threads on Public Address System, and I couldn’t blame you, if it weren’t for the fact that I honestly believe PAS to be the most polite, respectful, and generally constructive forum of its type in New Zealand. Read: No-one ever calls anyone else a “pinko commie homo”, least of all the blogs’ authors.

Anyway, what I do like is when people directly involved in an issue actively jump in and debate it. That’s how blogs should work – we’re not journos so we don’t call people for quotes or their side of the story or what have you. We also editorialise. So because she took the time to jump in and join the discussion yesterday, and because many of you won’t have read it, I thought I should leave the last word on the Campbell Live issue to its producer, Pip Keane. Mainly because it confirms the whole frickin’ point I was trying to make in the first place:

...As for the racks [the topless sunbathing story].. well some might be critical but 30,000 people have been back for a second look on our website.. go figure if it isn't what people want to watch....

Carriage return. Carriage return. Carriage return. New paragraph. New topic.


No, before you start, this isn’t about Campbell Live or Close Up or anything. Well it is, it’s about all TV. But I just thought for those of you who don’t live and die daily/weekly/by Easter based on a set of figures, you might be interested in some general information and reflections in how ratings work, or don’t, and why we’re in this mess. Those of you who work in TV probably don’t need to read this because you’ll know it already. And any mention of specific channels or shows here is purely illustrative, and not intended to inflame or defame.

Ratings are a lot like God. Not that they decide who lives and who dies, although that’s certainly true, but because we all believe in them when it suits us. Well, not me – I think people who believe in God are a bunch of sun-worshipping cultists, but that’s another post for another day. But if the ratings are good, everyone who works on that programme/channel is happy to trumpet them. If the ratings are bad, we all talk about how inherently flawed the ratings system is. The same happens the day after the Qantas Awards. Trust me.

Ratings only matter because they determine how much a show is worth. Shows on commercial networks exist purely so they can sell the bits in between them, and hopefully recoup more from the bits in between than the bit outside cost. This doesn’t mean that the people who make the shows aren’t proud of them, and that they don’t work hard for their art. Or that the shows aren’t great. But if they can’t sell the bits in between for more than the great show costs, you’re probably not going to get a second season. If more people watch So You Think You Can Spell Better than Our Next Top Chef (Celebrity Edition), they win.

Not all people are created equal, either. And so ratings are divided up into demographics. There’s heaps of different options. The broadest is 5+. It’s everyone aged 5+. Well, everyone who is hooked up to a People Meter, which we’ll get to shortly. Then we start narrowing down, by age (18-34, 25-54, 18-49), ethnicity (Maori/Pacific Island), where you live (Auckland Urban), whether you’re the one who does the shopping or not, and whether you have kids (HHS with kids 0-9), whether you have a penis and so on. Each of these things theoretically means something to certain advertisers, but they are particularly concerned about marketing to people of a certain age – otherwise they’d just use the 5+ figure. So different channels, and to an extent different shows, target themselves towards key demographics, against which they measure themselves. TV3 generally uses 18-49, while TV1 uses 25-54. I could be wrong, but I think TV2 is 18-39.

So those are the ratings the channels will generally measure themselves against internally when selling to advertisers. But when it comes down to using ratings for PR, all bets are off. TVNZ will tend to use 5+, because in terms of overall bums on seats (which is what 5+ is), more people watch TVNZ. At 7pm on Sunday evening, to use an example that involves no 7pm Current Affairs shows, about as many people were watching the TV2 Sunday movie (Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium) as the combined audience of three of my favourite shows, The Simpsons (TV3), The Office (US version, C4) and Man vs Wild (Prime). But all these channels added together (including TV2) only adds up to about the same number as those who are watching The Zoo on TV One. As Pip Keane might say, go figure.

But advertisers don’t really care about 5+. Too many kids. Too many oldies who won’t change channel no matter what you put on TV One. They didn’t change channels when Paul Holmes went to Prime, as he found out to his detriment, and they’re not going to change their brand of toilet cleaner or refrigerator either, so don’t bother advertising to them.

TV3, when it comes to PR, will tend to use Auckland Urban 18-49, for the simple fact it dominates that market. Advertisers certainly look at it too. And of all the demographics you’d want to be attached to, then cool young city-dwelling folk has to be better than oldies with blankets over their knees. It’s hip-hop vs hip-op.

Ratings can, over a period of time, tell us interesting things about viewership. Viewed month by month, or year by year, trends can emerge that tell programmers how well their product is appealing to its target audience. But when you try and get ratings to do much more than that, you’re on dangerous ground. And that’s exactly what happens.

Why dangerous ground? Because the system is, by definition, imperfect. Ratings are based on a whole bunch of people (just under 1200 at 5+) whose viewing habits are recorded with PeopleMeters. Let's ignore for the moment the method by which those people are chosen (I believe that an old flaw whereby only homeowners could have PeopleMeters has now been removed). When you start to reduce this number down into demographics, your level of statistical uncertainty increases. The “all-important” 18-49 Auckland Urban demographic, for example, could be represented by fewer than 160 people. And if, for example, we are told 2% of them are watching a repeat of Joey at 6.30pm, that’s based on only three actual people watching telly. If two of those people are in the same house, and disappear off to the bedroom in a frisky mood (and let’s face it, who doesn’t get a bit frisky watching Joey repeats), the shows rating plummets.

Which is fine when you’re looking at long term trends, because they allow for the BBQ that went a bit longer and you missed The Office, or the fishing trip that got cancelled so you could watch Extreme Border Makeover after all. As I was once told in a lecture, weather forecasts aren’t wrong per se, the events just don’t happen in the timeframe it’s predicted they will. And what sort of idiot would listen to minute-by-minute weather predictions? Well, that’s what happens in telly, where minute-by-minute ratings can be analysed to apparently ascertain people’s reactions to one story that’s part of a programme, on say, the news, or a current affairs show.

I’ve been in those offices when this has been done (I won’t say which show, and I’ve worked on half a dozen now, but let's just say this particular person I'm thinking of is no longer in the building), where damning decisions are made – “that’s it, we’re not doing another politics story” (and fortunately often forgotten a week later) – because of a blip in the minute by minutes. A blip which could have a thousand other possibly explanations.

One of the shows I contract to, Back Benches, is on commercial-free Freeview. It has what I assume is a niche but committed viewership. I assume this because I’ve met many of them as I’ve travelled around the country over December/January doing our summer series. How many people watch each week? I have no idea – because it’s commercial free, there is no call for ratings.

Over the years many people, both viewers and within TVNZ itself have said to me “Wouldn’t it be great if you were on TV One!?” As much as I'd love the show to reach a bigger audience, I think of all those years dealing with ratings and the decisions that stemmed from them, and I find it hard to agree.

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