The Numbers Say TV is Getting Worse: But the Numbers Lie

Categories: Thoughts

Written By

September 13th, 2007

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Today I saw several stories that the public has weighed in, and 62% of us say TV programs are getting worse according to a new poll by the Associated Press and AOL Television.  Only 22% said it was getting better.  Yet, according to Nielsen, average time spent watching TV keeps going up!

Those two data points seem starkly contrasted to me.  The problem, I think is a result of a few components: how people respond in polls as well as how the questions are phrased and how most people, including me, think about things.

I was born before the Super Bowl was invented, but the TV beat me even in mass adoption by a few years.  I think if you asked me about the new TV shows in general, on average I would probably agree that television ain’t what it used to be.  But averages can be deceiving especially when the comparisons are apples to oranges.

Thirty years ago I had access to about 8 channels, including those on the UHF band. Now? There are over 100. While it’s true there’s surely a lot of shows that are indeed worse, there are so, so many outlets now that the actual number of good, really good, and excellent shows is probably higher than it’s ever been.

Boston Legal and the Sopranos are  (or were, I will miss the Sopranos) way, way better than average.  I don’t rate Heroes or Lost as highly, but I certainly rate them better than average.  In the months immediately leading up to, I binged on television shows (though not television itself – I watch almost nothing but sports “live”) like a fiend.

Now that I’m finally doing some work I hardly find the time for my daily staples ESPN’s Around the Horn and Pardon the Interruption.  But just from the work here at I want to catch up on all three seasons of House, The Closer and The Office.  Even stripped of commercials, that requires 126 hours.

Whatever we say, the truth seems to side with the law of large(r) numbers. Because there are so many outlets for it, there is actually more good television content available than there ever has been before.  

Note about the Nielsen chart referenced above – I am pretty sure it simply denotes the amount of time the average household has a TV turned on per day.  While that trend line certainly must level off at some point, I believe new technologies like the DVR will keep the trend in place for at least another few years. 

Interestingly, the people who complain most about the programs being worse are people 65+ where a full 75% say TV is getting worse.  This is no surprise.  The advertisers do not want to pay for these viewers so there’s not a lot of content being created to serve the senior set.  It’s too bad.

Unless the mindset of the advertisers can somehow be changed, this group will likely remain underserved and dissatisfied. But as people are living longer and longer, somebody will probably start an “We May Be Old, But We’re Not Dead, and We STILL spend Money” lobby (it has to be a better name though – that makes for a very lousy acronym!).   

Other notable blurbs from the AP/AOL poll:

·         Less than one in ten Americans said they have watched a full length television show over the Internet.  Note: I’m one of them – I watched a few episodes of Heroes and the season 3 finale of LOST (in what was billed as HD, and was pretty high quality!) via the Web.


·         The poll also found that 28% of Americans say they would like to see MORE news on Television.  This is up from only 17% two years ago and it doesn’t really jibe with any of the ratings #’s we’ve looked at.  But since the majority of people watching news are 55+, a very high percentage of them probably requested more news.  Unless they can figure out how to get more young viewers watching news I’m not optimistic we’ll see additional news programming. There's already FNC, CNN, MSNBC, CNN Headline News, CNBC, Bloomberg, Fox Business (soon, I think), ESPN News, The Weather Channel, C-Span, C-Span 2, etc, plus the nightly broadcast news.  It hardly seeems like an underserved market.  Perhaps none of these outlets are serving the existing market for news well enough.

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