SUMMARY: The Television Business

"The TV business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs."

- Hunter S. Thompson

Eyeballs  |  Youth The Suits  |  Out of Touch  |  Social Responsibility

Selling Eyeballs
If you think the television business is about entertainment and news, you're in serious need of reeducation. The television business is about making money. And they make money by "selling eyeballs." Entertainment is a side issue, something that happens now and then as a happy accident. Values, the impact on children, the direction society is going are not generally part of the picture at all. Anything that a programmer can do that increases ratings (more "eyeballs") is what they will do. Attracting eyeballs cheaply is even better. And if that means having supermodels eat worms, well, heck, let's do it!

networks are desperate for market share, and that desperation shows in the programming decisions they make.

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Youth, Youth, Youth
The television business is really controlled by the advertising business, and suffers from all the arbitrary trends and fashionable theories pushed by agencies. Chief among these right now is the lemming-like rush to "buy young eyeballs."

The coveted target audience is 18-49, with many ad agencies emphasizing the 18-34 group; some focus more on the even younger 13-24 group, hoping to cultivate future brand-loyal customers. Once you hit 50, you fall off the radar scope; tastes of older audiences are no longer considered by most networks.

The problem is, there is very little scientific basis for this pervasive philosophy that drives network programming. In fact, most studies reveal a significant flaw in the theory.

David Poltrack, CBS Vice President of advertising, says that "all of the statistical evidence, all of the marketing research that's been done, documents that the fastest growing audience of importance is the 55-plus audience."

The "Suits"
Another factor that affects the quality of programming is the fact that the big networks are now owned by even larger, multinational corporations, and are run by MBAs instead of people with creative credentials. In the business, actors and directors refer to these folks as "the suits." Veteran entertainers like Carol Burnett blame these corporate money managers for much of the decline in the quality of television programming.

Today, decisions in the television business are based more on multinational corporate policies than whether a given show is good or bad. This has been accelerated hugely by the massive consolidation over the last several years; today only eight gigantic companies control nearly everything you see in movie theatres, on TV, and hear on the radio.

Tiny, Isolated, Out of Touch
But the problems that the television industry has in connecting with most viewers is not just due to "the suits" or pressure from Madison Avenue. The problems also stem from the fact that the television world is very, very small, quite isolated, and very much out of touch with mainstream America.

Hiding behind the First Amendment
But ultimately, the exploitative and vulgar programming we are seeing today traces back to a steadfast refusal to take responsibility for the effects of programming. Executives are in frantic denial, insisting that television simply reflects culture and denying that their programs have an influence or shaping effect.

Real change in the television business will not come until more executives begin to take personal responsibility for the effects their decisions have on society. This is what we refer to as "socially responsible media."