Bruce Springsteen was the one who said there are "57 channels and nothing's on". Most of us agree about the dearth of quality television programming, and we largely blame television programmers for the sorry state of what's available, despite all of the choice.
Well, I'm changing my opinion. Last week, I had an experience which left me believing that like everything else, television content is market driven. If you think what you watch is garbage, that's because there is quite a market for garbage.
Quick background. I'm a radio guy. In the radio business, we get ratings on a quarterly basis. As a matter of fact, it's more like three times a year because there is not much importance placed on the summer "book". And when we get ratings, there is no correlation between the numbers and specific shows. You get a three month average broken down by demographics, but you cannot go back and check how a particular program fared.
That's why I was not used to the instant review of my work that came after I was asked on short notice to guest host for Joe Scarborough on MSNBC last week. When the star of Scarborough Country came down with laryngitis, I got the nod. I'd been a guest many times, but never a guest-host. It was a heady experience, and not just because my dome literally shined (as did my glasses) under the klieg lights. When it was over, I wanted to know how the show fared in the overnight ratings that are poured over by the television executives every afternoon.
It seems I did just fine. You know that old expression: Liars figure and figures lie. There is always something positive or negative to be read into ratings. There were also numbers to which I was privy that could not be so easily spun, and which speak volumes about society. They had to do with the breakdowns by "blocks".
See, the one hour program is divided into blocks for ratings purposes enabling a review of how well different subjects and guests were received.
In the first, or "A" block, the subject was the breaking news of the day - Andrea Yates, the mom who drowned her five kids - who was released from prison and sent to a posh looking mental facility in advance of a retrial. I interviewed her lawyer and then oversaw a scrum between two lawyers with differing views. In the all-important demographic of 25-54 year olds, 168,000 people were watching the A-block.
After a commercial break, it was time for the B-block and a change in subject. Now we focused on the burgeoning controversy over the cartoon depicting the prophet Mohammad wearing a bomb for a turban. I interviewed an Arab community leader who was angry. We disagreed on the cartoon. People tuned out. The number of viewers in that prime demographic had dropped to 128,000.
Next came a quick commercial break, and then the C-block, which featured a complete change of direction. It was time to discuss the trend toward meanness on American Idol, and to welcome as a guest, Haggai Yedidya, who was canned from the show earlier in the week. He was a colorful gent, and regaled myself and two other guests with a rendition of Lee Greenwood's God Bless the USA. It got a bit hokey. His shirt was loud and his voice left something to be desired. Nevertheless, by the end of the segment, all four of us were singing along. Guess what? It worked. The audience grew from 128,000 to 170,000, even higher than the show open with Andrea Yates.
The final portion of the program, or D-block, included a combination of short, quirky stories and the awarding of Joe Scarborough's dubious "Joe's Schmoe" award. (I nominated Donovan McNabb.) Only 90,000 were tuned in from the key demo.
Ok, so you didn't need me to tell you that American Idol is popular. Everybody knows it's the hottest show in the country. And just look what happened last week with the State of the Union. Forty-two million Americans watched President Bush deliver the speech, and he garnered his biggest viewing audience via Fox. Why? Because on Fox he had the perfect lead-in with American Idol. In its final half-hour, Idol had 33 million viewers. The president's first hour of viewing on the same channel had only 9.5 million viewers. In other words, only a 1/3 or so retention rate. And, thirty minutes into the speech, that number dropped to 6.9 million viewers. There was exponentially more interest in Idol than the nation.
My point is that even in the context of a hard news cable program like Scarborough Country, the nation has more of an appetite for Idol than a mom who drowns her five kids, or the Muslim world ablaze over a cartoon with religious implications.
People often blame the networks and cable providers for all of the "crap on TV". But my one night as a host suggests something else: television sells a widget that is market driven. And if you don't like the selection, blame the viewers, not the programmers.
Follow Michael Smerconish on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@smerconish