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VIEWERS GAINED MORE THAN THEY LOST

SHARE VIEWERS GAINED MORE THAN THEY LOST

Your local television editor recently received a thoughtful letter from Michael Provard of West Jordan that raises some interesting points. Here's what he had to say:

"In May this year you printed the season-ending rankings for all the television programs of the 1994-95 season, listing their ratings/shares. At the top of the list was `Seinfeld,' with a rating/share of 20.5/31."In a related incident, some time later I was browsing through a book at a local bookstore that detailed the history and episodes of `I Love Lucy.' I was astonished to see that a typical episode from the second season of the show (episode #58 `Lucy Hires a Maid,' April 27, 1953) had a rating/share of 67.8/91.

"I know that `I Love Lucy' was phenomenal in the ratings, but so is `Seinfeld,' isn't it? I've heard the commentary on how television has brought the country closer together in a `shared experience' sort of way, but looking at the numbers, my feeling now is that we've moved away from that with the proliferation of cable, satellite and new networks.

"I can imagine that in 1953, if I were watching the above-named episode of `I Love Lucy,' I could be pretty sure that there were not too many people across the country that were not watching it. In 1995, if I am watching any episode of the `wildly popular' `Seinfeld,' whole towns could be watching something else; and in this I would not be sharing in the experience.

"Is this progress or are we becoming so selfish (or is the media making us selfish?) that we need 48 dozen choices for television viewing?"

Some very interesting points indeed - points worth spending some time thinking about.

To deal with the more mundane items first, comparing "I Love Lucy's" numbers from 1953 and "Seinfeld's" from 1995 is sort of the proverbial apples and oranges. For one thing, the A.C. Nielsen Co. changed its rating system in 1960 so the two don't quite match up.

For another, the makeup of America - particularly as it relates to television - has changed considerably in 42 years.

Not only was the population of the country considerably smaller in 1953, but the percentage of households that even had television was a great deal lower. In 1953, 20.4 million homes (44.7 percent) had television. In 1995, that number jumped to 95.4 million (98 percent).

"Seinfeld's" average of a 20.5 rating translates into roughly 19.5 million households. That's comparable to the total number of households equipped with television during the 1952-53 season, when "I Love Lucy" averaged a 67.3 rating.

So, on average, about 5.75 million more households tuned in to "Seinfeld" in 1994-95 than were tuning in to "Lucy" in 1952-53.

As it turns out, today's "shared experience" isn't as different from what it was 42 years ago as it might seem at first glance.

The fact is that no matter how popular a program, there are still tens of millions of American out there who aren't watching.

The most-watched event in television history - which we should all be ashamed to admit was the reading of the verdict at the O.J. Simpson Trial - was seen by about 150 million people. That still leaves 100 million or so who didn't watch it.

All of this ties in rather closely to a continuing pet peeve among broadcast network executives - all the stories that have been written about the declining network share. And, while that share has indeed declined, much of the reporting of that decline does not take into account the change in the number of TV households in America.

"In 1965, there were 56 million . . . homes with televisions," said NBC West Coast President Don Ohlmeyer. "And the networks basically had 90 percent of the audience.

"Thirty years later, there are 96 million homes with television sets in the United States. And the three networks have 60 percent of that audience. So if you do the multiplication, we are roughly reaching the same number of people we were reaching 30 years ago.

"The reality of life is we're reaching more, because over the course of a week probably 90 percent of the homes with television use network television."

Ohlmeyer's figures are approximations, but his theory is correct.

Which is not to say that there aren't a lot more choices out there. Not only do we now have a full-fledged fourth broadcast network in Fox, but we have a pair of broadcast network wannabes in UPN and the WB.

And then there's the dozens of cable networks, home video rentals, satellite - it seems to go on and on.

Still, the fact is that the four main networks dominate America's TV viewing - another point Ohlmeyer made recently when addressing TV critics.

"Although many people have as many as 200 choices, if you take a 40-channel universe and you assume that ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox are four of those 40 channels, during the regular season 10 percent of the viewing choices provide 70 percent of the viewing time," Ohlmeyer said.

The fact remains, however, that in 1953 there wasn't much TV to talk about around the water cooler on a Tuesday morning except "I Love Lucy." Today, a dozen different people may have seen two dozen or more different shows the night before.

But while we may have lost some of that "shared experience" in TV viewing, we've also gained quite a bit along the way.

As recently as 10 or 15 years ago, a show on one of the Big Three networks had to pull in at least a 30 share (30 percent of the available viewing audience) to even survive. Today, very few shows garner shares that high.

And that's not necessarily a bad thing. In the past, networks invariably tried to pull in the largest segment of the viewing audience - which tended to make their shows more bland.

Today, even a relatively small share can make a show a success - if the show's demographics appeal to advertisers.

Just look at a show like "Star Trek." In the '60s, the show limped along for three seasons, continually on the verge of cancellation, because it could never attract a huge segment of the audience.

In the '80s and '90s, the various incarnations of "Trek" are fabulously successful - even though their share of the audience is actually less than what the original series pulled in.

Without the fractionalization of the audience shows like "thirtysomething" and "Hill Street Blues" would never have survived past their first season.

Today, everything from "Lois & Clark" to "Melrose Place" to "Chicago Hope" to "Frasier" depends on that fractionalization.

No, we may not all be watching the same thing. But, personally, I prefer the added choices and the fact that a show doesn't have to appeal to everyone to the days when the best television had to offer was "Petticoat Junction" and "The Beverly Hillbillies."

VIDBITS: The Fox News at Nine is about to change its weather. Henry Stone joins KSTU-Ch. 13's 9 p.m. newscast as its lead weathercaster next month.

Stone, who comes to Salt Lake City from the NBC affiliate in Palm Desert, Calif., will replace Jeff Kelly.

He's the third major addition to Fox's on-air team this fall. Bob Evans recently took over as the newscast's lead male anchor, and Hope Woodside will come aboard as the lead anchorwoman later this month.

And, of course, the station recently hired Geoff Roth as its new news director.

- Stephen King's "The Shining," which has already been made into a theatrical movie, will soon be coming to a TV set near you as an ABC miniseries.

The three-part, six-hour mini will air sometime during the 1996-97 TV season. King wrote the screenplay and is an executive producer.

Jack Nicholson will not be involved.

- If the voice of that radio psychologist on "Melrose Place" sounded familiar on Monday night, that's because it was Dr. Joyce Brothers.

Brothers is scheduled to make at least two more guest appearances on the show, but whether we'll actually see her is unknown.

And she'd have to be the world's greatest head shrinker to do anything about that totally bonkers Kimberly.

- Not much of anybody is watching the Joey, Matt and Andy Lawrence sitcom "Brotherly Love" on Sunday nights, so NBC is going to try to give the deserving family sitcom a boost.

Special airings are scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 25, at 7 p.m. and Monday, Oct. 30, at 7:30 p.m.

Hope it helps.

- As if NBC needs any help on Thursday nights - what with its blockbuster lineup - the network is going to do some stunt casting with its sitcoms on Nov. 2.

First, Lea Thompson of "Caroline in the City" will make an appearance on "Friends."

Next, David Schwimmer of "Friends" will show up on an episode of "The Single Guy."

Finally, Matthew Perry of "Friends" and Jonathan Silverman of "The Single Guy" will appear briefly on "Caroline in the City."

Got all that straight?

You may notice that "Seinfeld" is conspicuously absent from all this crossing over. You may remember that "Seinfeld" was also conspicuously absent last season when "Mad About You," "Friends" and "Madman of the People" all did related black-out episodes.

That Jerry just won't play along.

- Patricia Wettig is reportedly about to quit the CBS series "Courthouse."

(Assuming, of course, the network doesn't cancel the low-rated show first.)

Officially, Wettig - who won Emmys for her role on "thirty- something" - is citing "creative differences."

Translation - she discovered that the show she signed up for is a piece of junk.

- And on a doesn't-it-just-make-you-sick note, NBC News says it's still negotiating with O.J. Simpson and is prepared to do a prime-time interview with him when he's ready.

Hopefully, he won't be ready for a long time.

And, hopefully, NBC will try to play it a little more low key if and when it does happen.