One of the first things I learned when I started a production job, lo these many years ago, was how to read ratings. The Futon Critic has a great FAQ section on the difference between ratings and share. A lot of sites, including Futon Critic, have daily ratings breakdowns of the previous night’s shows and will help give some interpretation, although when I was on productions we’d get a beautiful daily chart from the research department.
I thought I had figured it out. I had The Key. I knew why shows got picked up or canceled. I knew now that shows are not just in competition with other shows in their timeslot, but also other shows on their own network. (If every other show on your night is getting a 2.1 and you get a 1.4? Gone, baby, gone.) I knew how many midseason shows the network had waiting in the wings, and therefore how many shows had to get canceled for the schedule to work. I knew the difference between the key demo and household numbers, and that legalizing the advertising of prescription drugs on TV was a game-changer. TV was just like the stock market – by the numbers. I had this one bit of information, and the world was laid out before me!
But then the Upfronts didn’t go the way I’d expected. Or there were schedule changes that didn’t make sense. And I realized that underneath the numbers was an industry where everyone involved was too close to their shows, and none of them could see the forest for the trees. They couldn’t tell why this show was good or bad, or exactly what it was the audience was connecting with. So they developed superstitions. This showrunner will give us a hit. That star will score well with teenage boys and older women but not the 18-49 crowd. We need a black character, but not the lead. Because they couldn’t tell what made a show good, so they’d do the equivalent of turning in a circle three times while wearing lucky underwear. When that doesn’t work? Then something else must have gone wrong. Which is why shows that are unique and original – and good, which is an incredibly hard mark to hit anyway – are so rare.
I was flabbergasted at first. I thought I’d figured it out! Television was just like the stock market! And then it turns out it’s run by a very few very influential people with little to no idea how people actually work… JUST LIKE THE STOCK MARKET!
I mean, think about it. If the Free Market had even the slightest common sense and wasn’t superstition-driven, plus-sized people wouldn’t have trouble finding fashionable clothes.