Paying the Price

April 24, 2008

Today in the USA it’s the first day of May Sweeps – a time when things in TV land get crazy as networks desperately bid for viewer’s eyeballs and recall.

Unlike our local system, US ratings are gathered in two ways – via people metres each evening and by analysing data entered into paper diaries that are distributed four times a year. For some reason, even as the US gallops toward phasing out analogue television, this dated method of recording viewing habits is given incredible kudos. So, when the diaries are sent out, every network pulls out its big guns so that when members of a household put pen to paper, its their logo or programs that come to mind. Even though those who get a ratings book are paid for their opinions, you can be certain that US$30 doesn’t change the fact that they’re filled out the night before they’re due for collection.

It’s the May Sweeps that have inspired the newest incarnation of the world’s longest running gameshow Price Is Right. In the primetime Million Dollar Spectacular version that will start appearing next Wednesday night at 8pm, Drew Carey presents games we know and love but offers huge payoffs for guessing the retail value of familiar items. In calculating the cost of running a gameshow and paying for cash or prize giveaways, production companies utilise the expertise of academic statisiticians. These masters of mathematics are brought in to assure everyone that big money will only ever be given away when the show can afford it. Variables like the difficulty of the game, the number of times it’s been played and the likelihood of choosing an intelligent contestant are all taken into account.

However, even with the best equations, anomolies occur. On paper, it shouldn’t have taken 5 years for the first Australian to fulfill the promise of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and certainly the boffins wouldn’t have foreseen this outcome.

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The position of television programmer is not generally spoken of with any degree of desire. There’s no reality show offering it as a prize and little kids don’t ever use it as a dress up character. And no wonder. Who would want a position that’s a cross between an Idol Judge (NEXT!), an insurance assessor (zero risk = a well-loved host + a popular format that hit in foreign country) and a D-grade celebrity (you’re here with who?)?

Surely the least wanted job right now is network head at Channel 9. If it wasn’t for popping in a tape of Gordon Ramsay whenever possible, there’d be very little keeping 9 in the ratings war. There may be a slight sigh of relief since Canal Road broke the magic million last night, but it’s early days and one hour a week cannot revive an entire network.

Last week the programmers of the world spent the week in Cannes for MIP TV, the little sister of MIPCOM, which is considered the high point of the TV junket calendar. 13,000 delegates gathered – imagine all the handshaking and bad suits hitting the French Riviera. Deals were done, decisions made, backs were slapped. Unfortunately, still smarting from Monster House, Power of Ten, and the local version of Moment of Truth , Ch 9 went shopping. It’s a pity that two major purchases they made – royal drama The Palace and reality series Ladette to Lady – have already been axed in their local territory. Ouch.

One of the toughest things about holding the top network job is that your work is constantly under the scrutiny of the nation and can be severely impacted by the general public, the lawmakers and several governing bodies. Consider the fallout for Underbelly. Or the amazing story that came out of Venezuala last week where the country’s tv authorities dropped The Simpsons from morning TV after judging the cartoon as unsuitable for children and replaced it with the very wholesome Baywatch.

When things start going wrong people get desperate. Last time a network was in this much trouble was when Ch 7 commissioned Temptation Island. Oh yeah, here we go again.

The figures are in and it seems we aren’t really interested in TV that could educate us about what’s going on in our heads.

Of course, Enough Rope was unlikely to hit last week’s Wayne Carey-fest numbers, but a drop of almost half a million was a surprise. Tuesday’s Stress Busters was watched by 100 000 less than those who tuned in the week before for Wendy Harmer’s Stuff. The only glimmer of hope was a slight spike of 30 000 extra viewers who watched the plight of Sydney’s homeless youth last night at 8.30pm as opposed to the previous week’s drama import Life on Mars.

However, I may have underestimated the educational value of Channel 9’s My Kid’s a Star. It didn’t crack the million viewers that the struggling network would have wanted, peaking at around 870 000, but it certainly has valuable lessons to teach us all, like that there’s more to show business than razzle dazzle.

All this week television networks, production companies and program makers will be crossing their fingers as they jump the gun and roll out a selection of new shows before the start of the official ratings period. Consequently, executives will be rushing to their desks for the ratings and hoping for a number they can be proud of… So how do the numbers get there?

With all the technology around, it’s not as sophisticated as you might think. Thankfully it’s a step above the system used for radio where listeners fill in books from memory. Having produced at a station where listeners would phone up insisting to speak to Richard Stubbs immediately even though he’d left 8 years earlier, never gave me much reason to trust the pen and paper system.

Television ratings are calculated via information gathered from ratings boxes or what AGB Nielsen call peoplemeters. Householders key in what they are watching and who is in the room and this information is collected 24/7 from every television they own. For their efforts these esteemed viewers accrue rewards points. Depending on how long they are part of this proud voluntary position (which can last for up to four years), they cash in their points for things like toasters, blenders, electric toothbrushes – anything that doesn’t take them away from the TV for too long. There is a significant emphasis put on choosing a cross section of households that accurately represent the entire population of Australia. Demographics, how many televisions they own and whether they have pay TV is all taken into account. Once the peoplemeter is installed their viewing habits are beamed down the phone lines in the wee hours of the morning.

By sun up Blackberries are buzzing and press releases are being issued by the program makers. On top of the raw data, it’s worth visiting a site like ebroadcast, where it’s common for all commercial networks to claim the night as theirs by adding terms like ‘target demographic’, ‘commercial share’ or ‘previous timeslot average’. What everyone broadcasting in primetime wants is 1 million viewers. Of course, events like Big Brother or Idol, sporting finals and nightly news are expected to pull in a whole lot more. But a million is the minimum for anything else – from Deal or No Deal to NCIS repeats (which consistently beguile us all by rating above 1 million).

So how many ratings boxes need to be tuned in to the same program for the execs to celebrate? From past training sessions I’ve learnt that there are approximately 5000 peoplemeters – 3000 in the five largest state capitals, plus another 2000 spread out over the rest of the country. The Australian population is just over 21 million (as revealed by the ABS late 2007). So each ratings box represents 4200 head of population. One million divided by 4200 equals 238.

It sounds so easy. And even if these early attempts at grabbing viewers work, getting them to come back is the real challenge. Because even though we know if people are watching, we don’t know until the following week whether they liked what they saw.