05/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011


Years ago, I watched a documentary on PBS that came to a disturbing conclusion about the television rating system. This was no phony-baloney opinionator talking off the top of his head like, well, okay, me. The producers interviewed many knowledgeable people in the field. These guys were legit. Wait, I'm legit, in that I don't make stuff up. These guys were authoritative.

The conclusion the PBS documentary came to was this: The ratings system does not accurately measure what the ratings companies claim it accurately measures, that being, the size of the audience watching the show. And that's its whole job. So, practically then, it doesn't do anything.

Except it does. I -- and every other creator of a television show -- have had shows canceled because of low ratings. This is a tangible consequence of the system. And a highly visible one as well. I don't know about where you live, but in L.A., the ratings are printed in the paper every Wednesday morning, like baseball standings.

You can see exactly where your show ranks against all the other shows on the air, most importantly, your competition -- the shows airing on the other networks at the same time. As a show runner, you get the ratings delivered to your office. But you don't have to wait that long. You can monitor your entire future from the comfort of your own breakfast, over a bowl of spoon-sized Shredded Wheat.

Try and imagine the impact this revelation has on a television person. Your show's fate depends entirely on the ratings. And a PBS documentary says the ratings aren't accurate. Information of this nature can take your breath away. Your show's getting canceled as a result of a system that doesn't accurately measure what is it that got your show canceled -- the number of people watching the show.

That's like making medical decisions based on information from a thermometer than doesn't accurately measure temperature.

What the heck is going on?!

What's going on is this. Commercial television networks sell advertising time based on the size of the audience watching a particular show. Today it's more about the size of a segment of the audience -- the younger segment -- but it's still about the size. The larger the size of the younger audience watching the show, the more the networks can command from the advertisers.

And how is the size of the audience measured?

It's measured by the ratings.

As mentioned, a show's cancellation or renewal is also dependent on the size of the audience. And how is the size of that audience measured?

It's measured by the ratings.

But hold on there, Baba Louie. That PBS documentary reported that the ratings don't accurately measure the size the audience.

And here's the part that make me crazy. Are you ready?

It doesn't matter.

It doesn't?

No, sir. You see, my boy, there's a system in place. Everyone's a party to it -- the owners of the shows, the networks, the advertisers. This system allows business to be conducted in a reasonable and comprehensible manner, allowing everything run smoothly. It is able to run smoothly, because the system is based on an Agreement that's accepted by everybody involved. And that Agreement is this:

The ratings accurately measure the size of the audience.

But they don....

Stop it! You want chaos in the business process? No way to measure if a show is a hit or a flop, no way of determining the price of the commercials, is that what you want? Because that's exactly what you'll get if you don't have an Agreement. Business requires a mutually acceptable measuring apparatus. It establishes a context in which the conversation can take place. You got agreed-upon "numbers", you can talk business.

It doesn't matter that the "numbers" aren't accurate?

Oh, Early, you're so naive.

But it's based on a lie.

An agreed-upon lie.

The truth doesn't matter?

Sometimes the truth is actually the enemy.

It is?

Enron was one of the most highly respected companies in America. They had stadiums named after them. Ken Lay's on Larry King.

Respected publications agree: Enron employs an "innovative business model." Wall Street agrees. They promote the stock to their clients. Investors agree. The stock goes through the roof. Making everyone involved in the Agreement -- Enron, its employees and its stockholders -- rich and happy.


A reporter carefully studies Enron's "innovative business model" and concludes that "The Emperor has no clothes." Subsequent investigations back the reporter up.

This revelation sends Enron stock plummeting to zero. Enron employees lose their jobs and their pensions. Arthur Anderson, a respected accounting firm, goes out of business. Enron executives go to prison.

This may sound like a foolish question, but who's the Bad Guy in this monumental collapse, Enron and its enablers, or the reporter who refused to play along, obliterating the Agreement?

Are you kidding me?

Who's the Bad Guy?

The reporter was simply telling the truth.

The truth brought it all down. The Agreement made everyone rich and happy.

But if something's wrong, it's bound to come crashing to the ground sooner or later.

Really? They're still reporting the ratings.

Earl Pomerantz's blog can be reached at