shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source
How Television Ratings Portend the Death of Mass Media
10/14/1999

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. 


Write clay@shirky.com with questions or comments.

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shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source