How Television Ratings Portend the Death of Mass Media
The fall Nielsen ratings are now in for the new crop of prime time TV shows, and in what
is becoming a predictable pattern, the results are underwhelming. Despite the promotional
avalanche that accompanies every new series, this year's new shows failed to attract as
much attention as the hits of previous seasons. This steady decline in popularity of each
successive season's offerings is fairly dramatic. Not since "Seinfeld" has a show managed
to reach one out of four American households. The top three ("E.R.," "Frasier," "Friends")
only reach about one household in five, six, and seven, respectively, and even that tops
the current season. The most popular new show ("Stark Raving Mad") reached barely one in
eight. There's no mystery about this process: Proliferation of choices divides attention,
and every year sees increased choices on cable, the video store, and the web. The mystery
is that the price to run a commercial on one of these hit shows is at an all-time high.
If the most popular shows reach fewer people every year, why are advertisers willing to
pay more for commercial slots on those shows? The first and simplest reason is that the
dot-coms are pouring a huge amount of money into advertising, and driving up prices. But
the more interesting answer has to do with the large-scale splintering of mass media.
Broadcast networks and advertisers are used to buying audience attention in bulk, and in
prime time bulk means at least 20 million households at a time. These massive audiences
for prime time shows, developed when the entire TV universe included just ABC, NBC, and
CBS, provided the kind of reach that made it possible for the General Foods of the world
to turn a new brand into a household word in a few weeks, by simply buying the attention
of a quarter of the country at once. As the shows which can offer this kind of mass
audience disappear, things are getting trickier for the networks -- they can sell the
advertiser two shows that each reach an eighth of the country, but how can they prove
that you are reaching two different people and not just the same person twice? They can't.
The symbiotic relationship between mass media and mass marketers is being threatened by
the increasing number of media outlets, which sub-divides the mass audience into smaller
and smaller niches.
Broadcast TV can charge higher prices for fewer households because the mass marketers
simply have nowhere else to go. Despite the increasingly anemic performance of the most
popular TV shows, there isn't another medium that offers the option of reaching 10
million households at the same time with a single ad -- even giant portal sites fragment
their reach across a number of offerings. Indie mutiny has been in the works for years,
but these recent Nielsen numbers may be a cultural bellwether -- among the first concrete
data to confirm the decay of mass media. Like a small island with a receding coastline,
the total area the broadcast networks cover shrinks every year, but for mass marketers,
it's still the only ground above water. It is obvious that both the networks and their
advertisers are soon going to have to adapt to a fragmented media market where nothing
regularly reaches 20 million people, and the only way to get mass will be niche plus niche
plus niche. In the meantime, though, old habits die hard, and it is these old habits of
looking for mass that are driving ad rates up for hit shows even as those shows lose the
very audience that makes them valuable. If the truth in advertising law had any real
teeth, CBS would have to change the name to "Almost One Person In Eight Loves Raymond."
Don't expect even that to last.