The Art of Self-delusion

The ratings show that as guys like me abandon broadcast TV, Network Executives Scratch Their Heads. What is so hard to figure out?

AS the ratings have rolled in for the first three weeks of the new television season, one question has dominated the conversations inside the industry’s executive suites: what the heck is going on?

Short answer: Your programming sucks.

Network executives are baffled by a season unlike any seen before. Returning hit shows like “Friends” and “E.R.” are losing significant numbers of viewers from previous years. New shows have performed far worse than almost anyone expected, a result capped off Monday night when the Fox network started two shows that had received huge promotional pushes during the baseball playoffs, “The Next Joe Millionaire” and “Skin,” and they posted crushingly disappointing numbers. And men between 18 and 24 are apparently deserting television in droves. So far this year nearly 20 percent fewer men in that advertiser-friendly demographic are watching television during prime time than during the same period last year.

Guys don’t give a shit about Joe Millionaire, and we don’t give a crap about Skin, unless someone makes a soft-core porn with that name and runs it on Skinemax.

The drop-off in these viewing figures tabulated by Nielsen Media Research is inexplicable to industry executives. “Frankly what we’re seeing strains credulity,” said Alan Wurtzel, the president of research for NBC.

“Our shows can suck so bad that people don’t watch them? That’s unconcievable!”

Executives are demanding an explanation from Nielsen for these discrepancies, which, if they continue, could leave the networks on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars in so-called make-goods, free commercials to make up for falling short of guarantees to advertisers.

(Nielsen explains later.)

Jack Loftus, the corporate spokesman for Nielsen, said the ratings company had assiduously checked its data and was confident the numbers were accurate. He said that while the drop in young men watching television was highly unusual, it was real. Mr. Loftus said Nielsen was examining several possibilities to explain the decline, including some unexpectedly high use of video games and DVD players by the young men now absent from television, and even the possibility that a certain number of the young men who are supposed to be in the sample may have been called to duty in Iraq by the National Guard.

“Sure, we’ll look at every hairbrained possibility, but everything we have seen points back to the belief that your programming sucks.”

Steve Sternberg, a research executive in the advertising industry as senior vice president for Magna Global USA, said the situation “is certainly a mystery.” But he said that the make-good issue would probably not become acute for a while. “Everybody at this point is saying let’s see what happens when baseball gets finished,” Mr. Sternberg said.

Network executives said none of Nielsen’s explanations so far could explain the suddenness of the viewing drop-off and its concentration in just one demographic group.

“You can’t explain a 12 percent decline in men 18 to 34 or close to 20 percent in men 18 to 24 by saying they’re playing a lot more video games,” said David F. Poltrack, the executive vice president for research at CBS.

He added, “The fact that it’s concentrated in one small age group makes it worse, and even more likely that it’s an aberration.”

Mystery? Mystery? Look, you dunce, your godddamned programing sucks green donkey balls! Your shows are crap! There is no better way for us to show you that than to stop watching and when we do you won’t listen! Stop programming crap! We won’t watch it anymore! We’re madder than hell, and we aren’t going to take it anymore!

One possible factor is more basic, Mr. Sternberg said — the quality of the new shows. “I’ve always noticed that we never hear anybody talking about the programming.” He noted that the networks, which still tend to drive the overall viewing figures, have suffered though a grim start to their new prime-time season. “What has anybody put on that’s going to appeal to young men?” Mr. Sternberg asked.

The answer was not much, even before the Fox network’s belly-flop Monday night. Fox has been on the programming sidelines most of the fall because of its coverage of postseason baseball.

You stupid assinine . . . Wha? A voice of reason? Okay, let’s look at Fox’s lineup:

  • Joe Millionaire: Crap
  • Skin: Crap
  • The OC: Crap
  • Boston Public: Jumped the Shark
  • That 70’s Show: Jumped the Shark
  • 24: Can’t follow it becuase I don’t spend every day watching TV — I might watch if I had Tivo
  • A Minute with Stan who?

    There is some light at the end of the tunnel:

    Until Fox really started to compete, several executives said last week, the question of a fall-off in young male viewers could not be fairly assessed because Fox is the network that most appeals to that group.

    But that group did not show up on Monday for Fox — and neither did most anyone else. The poor performance of “Joe Millionaire” could not be attributed to the shortfall in young men because all categories of viewers that once liked it seem to have stayed away.

    FOX doesn’t appeal to men anymore except for two things: the Sunday Comedies, and COPS. We watch COPS, and anything with “Most Amazing”, “World’s Scariest”, or “Police Chases” in the title. We watch the Sunday comedies, even if the Simpsons jumped the shark a while ago and you sent Futurama off to Adult Swim.

    Stop running crap, and you’ll get your viewers back. Until then, I’ll watch American Choppers for my reality shows, and Reno 911! for my comedy.

    For more on this, Tom Devine has some opinions as does Adam at the Supermercado Project. Strangely, Technorati doesn’t point me to anyone who shares the network exec’s confusion. Imagine that.

    Note to Tom: If you were thinking of “Dirty Laundry”, the phrase is “Bubble-headed bleach blonde” When I was taking RFTV in High School it was our news theme.

    (Via Neal Boortz)


  1. Phelps – you dead right and that was an excellent fisk. I watch very little network programming, for the reasons you state above,preferring instead to watch the cable offering – more diverse, not trying to be everything to everyone. Fjuck em! Let em eat beans till they figure it out!

  2. markm says:

    I’m an old man, and I canceled the cable two years ago and never bothered hooking up the antenna again. Not only does TV suck, but it cuts into your web-surfing time.