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The Television Business:

Selling Eyeballs


 "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.jpg 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!

Before cable, in the days of the "Big Three," owning a local station was a license to print money; the networks themselves were larded with profit. Today, competition from cable stations has sliced the pie into smaller and smaller pieces, and the business is much more competitive. Add to this that "edgy" exploitative programming has caused almost half the audience to tune out, and each piece of the pie becomes smaller still. That means that networks are desperate for market share, and that desperation shows in the programming decisions they make.

Broadcast television (both over-the-air and basic cable) are mediums for selling advertising. Premium cable (HBO, Showtime, etc) are different because they make their money off of subscriber fees rather than advertising revenue. The rates that a network can charge for commercial time is determined by their ratings, measured by the AC Nielsen company. Nielsen measures network audiences during four weeks, known as "sweeps weeks," and it from those numbers that advertising rates are set. That's why when a sweeps week rolls around, every network puts on every kind of blockbuster show it can muster in order to artificially inflate their numbers for that week. Non-sweeps weeks will often be a gummy morass of reruns.