Everybody is right and everybody is wrong. It sounds impossible but in the crazy world of broadcast television anything is possible. Just ask the spinners at the Canadian networks about their ratings and watch the numbers fly.
Right now we are in the midst of a massive self congratulatory period where the Canadian nets are taking to the podia to proclaim the major successes they have had over the past year. The ratings are amazing, it’s true, almost everybody’s numbers are way up. But, and it’s a big but, does that mean that there are more people watching the fare offered by CTV, Global and CBC?
To me the answer is obvious. In a world where network TV audiences have been declining for a decade or more it is hard to believe that there has been anything broadcast in the 2009-2010 television season to change the trend. Sure there have been some hits, there always are. The real reason for the numbers rising is the new counting method. This is the first television year for the new PPMs (personal people meters). These pager-like devices are worn by people and report back to companies like Neilson on what viewers are actually watching. It is clear that this is a much better system than asking someone to fill in a questionnaire where he or she could lie, forget, not bother or just plain ignore their viewing choices. On the other hand, the PPM measures what’s on the TV if you are in the room, not whether you are actually watching it. For my generation that doesn’t mean much. Put a 60 year old in front of a television and we’ll watch color bars for twenty minutes. Young people, however, are a different breed. They can be on the computer, listening to an ipod and still have the TV tuned to the hockey game. What they are actually watching or listening to is anybody’s guess. So while I accept that the new numbers are more accurate, I don’t believe they are truly accurate.
For CTV and Global the results are just about money. The more viewers they have, the more they can charge for commercial time. That’s great. Even without the new TV tax it should mean a windfall in ad revenues for this year and in the future. The Olympic numbers were staggering. On some occasions there were close to 15 million Canadians watching. Put in perspective, Canada’s best ever rated shows before this year were in the 5 to 6 million range. Over at Global shows like Survivor and House are doing gangbuster business. If we are lucky, and I wouldn’t hold my breath, maybe a few of these extra dollars might find themselves funneled into new Canadian content…in prime time.
The CBC, as usual is a different story, Kirstine (Layfield) Stewart and company are fighting for both the future of the people’s network and for the proof that the choices they made back in 2007 are the right ones.
The critics, and I am one of them, claim the CBC has dumbed down. They have dropped cultural programming, they have stopped producing gritty, real drama, and they have clearly begun a love affair with reality and fluff. Most upsetting to me is what they have done to news and current affairs. The Fifth Estate has been relegated to the dead zone of Friday night. The National has become the national joke for its lack of content and its ridiculous new set. The Nature of Things and Marketplace have been shuffled around more than a deck of cards on poker night. There is, it is clear, no backing for anything that could be deemed serious.
I am not the only one saying these things. In a Globe story Ken Finkleman and others have gone out of their way to question the direction of mother corp. These are people who in past times depended on the CBC for their livelihood.
The answer according to Ms. Stewart: check out the ratings. The CBC is thriving with Little Mosque on the Prairie, Dragon’s Den, and 18 to Life.
So here is where it is true and it is wrong at the same time happens. Yes the numbers are up. Six CBC shows have over 1 million viewers (one of which is Jeopardy). Thank you PPMs. It is also true that the corp doesn’t have a single show in the top 20 in Canada. The hockey playoffs will nudge Hockey Night in Canada into the top 20 but that will be it. Battle of the Blades and Dragon’s Den are certifiable CBC hits. But even with the PPMs, The Ron James Show, 18 to Life, Being Erica, Kids in the Hall and Little Mosque can be described as ratings losers. None reach much over half a million viewers with the best ad campaigns and the best time slots. The Fifth and Marketplace are in the same audience range without any ads and in schedule purgatory.
So when Ms. Stewart finishes patting herself on the back for her brilliance, remember that CTV is doing much better with Canadian programming and even Global is overpowering the CBC numbers. You see everything is relative in the world of TV ratings and people like Stewart are the first to use the numbers to their own advantage even when they are meaningless.