Thursday, February 22, 2007

Truth In Advertising

The great writer Douglas Adams was able to calculate the average population of the universe as zero. Adams wrote that we know there are an infinite number of planets out there, but only a finite number were inhabited. Any finite number divided by infinity works out statistically as zero, so any person you actually meet, Adams wrote, is likely the product of the imagination of a demented bee.

I bring this up because my brother sent me an e-mail with a link to a Washington Post story, saying "You have to blog about this!" (Yes, I do requests).

The story, from the Post's TV critic Lisa de Moraes, takes CBS to task for its promos. You've likely seen The Eye tout "CSI" as TV's top-rated drama, or "Shark" as the No. 1 new show on the air.

And, technically, they are. Just not in a way any other person measures.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how the Nielsens came about and how they have become rather useless for today's TV viewer. What CBS does is count the cumulative number of viewers for its shows and touts those ratings, rather than the average number of viewers per individual new episode, which is how the rest of the human race measures viewership.

So, "CSI" gets a very strong 20.6 million average viewership per episode, not exactly chopped liver. But that comes nowhere close to Fox's "American Idol," which draws in an average of 35.3 million. However, if you add up the 20 episodes of "CSI" that have been show this season, you get 412 million viewers. "AI," by contrast, has broadcast just four episodes, according to the article, adding up to about 141 million.

As The Post points out, NBC's "Heroes" regularly beats "Shark" among the new shows, with an average of 14.5 million viewers compared to the latter's 13.4 million. However, "Shark" has aired 20 episodes compared to 15 from "Heroes," meaning the CBS legal drama has netted 267 million viewers for the season, compared to 217 million for "Heroes."

(And The Post didn't even factor in the fact that "Shark" is dropping nearly seven million viewers weekly from its "CSI" lead-in, or in CBS math, 140 million viewers over the season.)

The CBS math, while technically accurate, is dead wrong in terms of advertising, since the 412 million viewers for "CSI" aren't 412 million individuals. It's the same 20.6 million that tune in every week.

Of course, in the age of DVRs and so forth, ratings themselves have become somewhat meaningless. NBC likes to tout "Studio 60" as the top recorded program on the dial, meaning that if you factored in the recorded ratings to the actual ones, the audience numbers increase 10 percent. If "Studio 60" had those numbers compared to its actual ones, it wouldn't be facing likely cancellation at the end of the season.

But Hollywood is notorious for fudgy math, and it's likely all of the networks will continue to trot out whatever numbers they want to in order to promote a show or bury it.

AMERICAN IDOL FOLLOW: TV viewers who want to chat about who shined and who didn't on "American Idol" now that they are into the finals stages should go over to our music blog, Amped, on

THURSDAY'S BEST BETS: CBS' ratings should go way up tonight with a lineup of all-new episodes of "Survivor" beginning at 8 p.m., followed by the previously mentioned "CSI" and "Shark."

ABC is running two full hours of "Grey's Anatomy" beginning at 8 p.m., followed by Oprah Winfrey's Oscar special at 10 p.m. NBC gives us a full night of comedy from 8-10, followed by a new "ER."

Fox airs the final episode of "The OC" tonight, beginning at 9 p.m. I should probably say something about this brief cultural phenomenon, but honestly, I never watched a minute of it.


Zodin2008 said...

Great topic about the Ratings and CBS' faulty, lying Promos. Honestly, it made me cringe every single Sunday afternoon watching the NFL on CBS and hearing Jim Nantz's phone voice promo CBS prime time and continually re-saying the phrase, 'the most watched network in America' or whatever.

Whether it's true or not is inconsequential to me. It's sos sickening of a ploy, especially when they BS on their numbers, plus, I hate 98% of what airs on CBS (save for "Mother" and "Jericho") that it further chaps me.

Apparently, since according to CBS (only) that "Shark" is more viewed as a new program then "Heroes", CBS' President Nina Tassler's magical power is fuzzy math.

As usual with my Thursday viewing, I will continue to buck the trend in America and IGNORE "Grey's Anatomy" and CBS. It's just NBC for tonight since my other Thursday favorites, "Ugly Betty" and the CW action pair, are off.

Hotsput said...

I think the whole rating thing is crazy. How can 1500 people be an accurate guide to tens of millions.

Secondly if I am representative of many, I DVR all the programs I watch (I hate ads). Thus, how do the networks know what shows are seen.

Finally how can the programmers know what ads are seen when so many viewers skip them

Phillip Ramati said...

That's a point I made in my blog posting about ratings a few weeks ago. Commercials have almost become a thing of the past with DVRs and what they can do.

In the next five years, TV's very nature will likely change since advertisors will no longer pay huge fees to air commercials that less people are watching.

Anonymous said...

Something else that bothers me about CBS: this afternoon on a lunch break I noticed that the network is promoing it's Monday comedy line up as "seriously funny." now is it just me, or has TBS already used this campaign?
I'm not sure if CBS owns TBS, but even still, I would think the powers-that-be could come up with an original marketing plan, don't you think?

Phillip Ramati said...

Good point, anon, hadn't noticed about the promo from CBS, but yes, TBS ran the same slogan. I don't think you can copyright a phrase like that, however.

Mac said...

They're getting even more ridiculous now. Apparently, "NCIS" is "Tuesday's most-watched show". Even leaving out the Death Star, "House" is also bigger, but again hasn't aired as often.

As I mentioned to your brother, the reason CBS is doing this is that it's all they've got. Their entire marketing campaign is based on popularity. That's what CBS does, has always done, and so when reality doesn't fit, reality has to be altered.

Phillip Ramati said...

CBS has been employing those tactics, but it's also been working for them. They are the No. 1 network in terms of overall ratings, like their shows or not. The promos are misleading, but it's really up to the other networks to point out the success of their ratings.