John Heaton (jheaton) wrote,
John Heaton

On TV ratings

Sixty years ago today, Lucille Esmeralda "Lucy" McGillicuddy Ricardo, wife of the well-known singer/bandleader Enrique Alberto "Ricky" Ricardo, gave birth to her first child, Enrique Alberto "Little Ricky" Ricardo IV. I'm referring, of course, to the I Love Lucy episode "Lucy Goes to the Hospital," which first aired on January 19, 1953. 44 million people tuned into watch. In modern ratings parlance, that works out to a 72 share.

That's a pretty incredible number. No episode of any television show could even dream of pulling down that kind of share nowadays. (Community generally gets about a 5 share, which is to say that 5% of the televisions in use were tuned in.) Of course, it's no surprise that a show that aired at a time when there were only four broadcast networks (Dumont was still around) would command a higher share than one that airs now, when there are six or seven major broadcast networks (I can't decide if MyNetworkTV counts) and hundreds of cable channels, but the total number of viewers is higher than the combined viewership of last week's five most watched TV shows. And that's only if you count special programming like NFL playoff games and the Golden Globes. If you only count the regularly scheduled broadcasts, it's higher than the entire top 15. (Community usually gets less than 2 million total viewers.)

Thinking over these numbers reminded me of some research I did last year regarding the short-lived but fondly remembered (by me and a handful of others) Fox sitcom Partners. It had trouble finding an audience, and Fox cancelled it at the end of the season, and in 1996 your ratings had to be really low to get cancelled by Fox. But when I dug up the numbers from back then, I found that if Partners was on now and was pulling the same ratings as it did when it was cancelled in 1996, it would be Fox's highest-rated scripted show. That was only 15 years ago, and it's not like there were only four channels to watch then.

Again, you'd expect the average share to drop as the number of channels rises. But the number of viewers is falling too. There were 500,000 fewer TV households in the US in 2012 than in the year before. An ominous trend!

Of course, I'm partly to blame. When I moved to Wisconsin in 2010, I left my TV behind in Virginia and never bothered to replace it, choosing instead to obtain my programming in other ways. And if enough people follow my lead in that regard, TV as we know it is pretty much doomed. The current production model for broadcast and free cable programming cannot exist without advertising revenue, and if viewers continue to disappear, so will those ad dollars, and the industry will be doomed. So if that happens, I apologize for my role in the collapse.
Tags: history, this day in history, tv: other

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