February 5, 2023

Is there even such a thing as a 'mass audience' anymore?

The left side of the above comparison reflects CBS’ Sunday night high-rated Nielsen TV program ratings of four and a half decades ago. Since all of 1977-1978’s top 10 network TV primetime shows rated between 22.9% and 28.4%, ABC, CBS and NBC’s network broadcasts, on average over 22 primetime hours per week, were a “captive audience” medium. If you bought Cosby, Family Ties and E.R., you’d reach 90% of all viewing households within three hours. There’d be some duplication because NBC’s footprint was so big, with Cosby scoring an absurd 50 share of audience on many Thursday nights. The right-side of the chart, however, reveals the same CBS time periods today. CBS Sunday night programming still delivers some of today’s highest ratings. And a rating point still equals 1 percent of a demographic universe. So instead of high ratings, CBS’ Sunday evening ratings are among the highest of what’s left of broadcast viewership. This is the byproduct of a three network monopoly–later including branded independent stations like FOX and CW–shifting over the years to expanded cable, satellite and now streaming options.

Long ago, one broadcast network research head told me that, on average, people watch 10 channels. It’s as if TV buyers, even those who are shareholders in co-ops–have misplaced their sense of prorata. Over a month or two, each and every channel accumulates virtually all TV viewing households. I cut cable and now only have 81 choices. I monitored them all readily until I reached a gauntlet with a new TV. (I’ll discuss the anxiety of the entire experience next month.) Television is still a quick 100% reach medium. But it depends on how the buyer uses it. Per previous articles, everyone in New York knows Ken Meares and his Omega XL. Virtually no one knew there was a Democratic Primary election for Comptroller.

I’ve been discounting the above snapshot of Nielsen’s primetime rankings for years because they’re moot. Few shows other than NFL regularly move the needle. The days when the lowest rated primetime programs were high rated have vanished like Judge Crater. 60 Minutes, TV’s most revered  show, now gets a 5.2% rating for the season. In other words, 60 Minutes, on average, now misses 94.8% of U.S. TV Households. It’s hard to build brand awareness with that hit vs. miss ratio. Look at it as the drastic difference in the size of audience CBS sells to its advertisers on Sunday nights between 1977-1978 and 2021-and 2022. The erosion is best charted by CBS’ 60 Minutes if only because it’s stayed in production and in its same primetime period during the duration of the audience shift from broadcast to cable. In 1977-1978, the show had five and a half times higher ratings than it does today. Do audience members today remember Mike Wallace better than they know, say, Scott Pelley?

The actor Liza Lapira caught my eye while playing second fiddle to Emma Stone in Crazy, Stupid Love. But now Ms. Lapira has caught fire as a regular character, part international woman of danger and part runway babe, on The Equalizer, the CBS reboot now starring Queen Latifa. When I noticed that Ms. Lapira and I went to neighboring high schools, I followed her. She seemed miscast in older vehicles such as 9JKL with Eliot Gould and Linda Lavin. The show was cancelled after one season; I never saw it.

So, my first question is, has The Equalizer made Ms. Lapira a star? Or has her s fifteen minutes of fame just started? 60 Minutes, her lead in, is as stable as network television programming lead-ins get. But each of the broadcast networks, including FOX, now have constantly shrinking promotion platforms for their advertisers, much less their own shows. On top of that, Nextstar has bought the CW Stations and intends to program them with older skewing shows. But that won’t help make their own show’s talent become known entities in this multi-channel/streaming environment. That ability was best described in John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love, “Those of you who are unknown will be known.” But there was no TV when Shakespeare was plucking Gwyneth Paltrow. Broadcast television can’t make anyone as regularly and reliably recognizable as it used to for all of its players. Has Pelley’s star surpassed Wallace’s? Has Lapira’s celebrity passed Archie Bunker’s Place star Danielle Brisebois? Over the decades, we collectively watch the same amount of TV on average by season by daypart. And, more U.S. TV homes are added to the population annually. Years ago, Art Buchwald, the newspaper columnist, said on CNN, “If television ever shut down the way the government has shut down, people would jump out of their windows!” Paul Klein, NBC’s Sr. VP of Programming and Research, was funnier, “There are only two kinds of people: those who come home, eat dinner and put on the television, and those who come home, put on the television and eat dinner.”

Danielle Brisebois (b. 1969) was the young girl lead in Archie Bunker’s Place; which ran after 60 Minutes in the late 70’s for years. As the chart shows, it got high ratings. But not only because it ran after 60 Minutes. At that time there were only three viable national viewing options. Four decades later, CBS programmed The Equalizer with Ms. Lapira (b. 1981) as a vixen sidekick assassin. The size of Archie Bunker’s Place’s ratings and the number of years it was on the air suggest that more people recall Ms. Brisebois than know Ms. Lapira. Ms. Lapira may know Ms. Brisebois, but does Ms. Brisebois know Ms. Lapira? In my mind, that’s the measure of the medium.

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