Here’s a critical thinking discussion you can begin to have with your kids when you’re watching television. (Apologies in advance for non-US readers, all my examples are from American television broadcasting.)
When you go to a movie you pay for a ticket. When you download a song from iTunes you pay for the song.
But when you watch commercial television you don’t pay for the shows you’re watching. You might pay for basic cable access, but you’re not paying NBC to watch an episode of Law & Order.
So what’s going on here? Is NBC giving away their content for free? How is that a business model?
This is the question I invite you to explore: how does NBC, or any commercial network, make money if they’re broadcasting the content for free?
The first step in the answer is to draw attention to the commercials, of course. The companies that make the products that are advertised in commercials are paying NBC to show their ads on their shows. That’s how NBC makes money from broadcasting original programming (there are other ways they continue to generate revenue, but let’s leave those aside).
But what is it that the advertisers are getting in return? What is NBC offering to the advertising companies that would make it worthwhile for them to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to air a 30 second ad?
I can tell you from experience, a lot of college students don’t know how to answer this question. The nature of the economic transaction going on when they consume commercial media isn’t obvious to them.
The answer is that they’re buying us, the viewing audience. NBC is selling eyeballs, attention. Eyeballs are valuable to companies, obviously, because the more people see their ads, the more likely that someone will buy the product being advertised.
So, what is the economic function of programming like The Voice, or The Office, or Law & Order?
The function of commercial television programming is to attract an audience for an extended period of time for the purpose of exposing that audience to commercial ads during that time period. The economic function of the programming is not, fundamentally, to entertain or tell stories or make us laugh, but to assemble an audience with a certain demographic profile that (the advertisers hope) will be receptive to the advertising, and to expose that audience to as many ads as it is willing to handle.
The networks have an interest in producing content that is entertaining, of course. But from the perspective of the network, the value of a commercial television program is determined by the commercial attractiveness of the audience that the program can reliably deliver to advertisers, not the quality or entertainment value of the programming per se.
Most of us don’t think about it this way when we’re watching tv. It can be striking to realize that what NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX, etc. are selling is us, the viewing audience, and that the reason why our favorite television programs exist on these networks is to serve as an instrument for gathering and selling our attention to the highest bidder in the “attention market”.
When viewed through this framework we gain some insight into other aspects of commercial programming. For example, it helps us understand the networks’ fixation on audience ratings. For over sixty years the Nielsen Company has been gathering and analyzing data on audience viewership and demographics. Ratings points and audience share provide information on the relative popularity of programs, but demographic structure is even more important from an advertising perspective. In general, the number of viewers within the 18–49 age range is more important than the total number of viewers. During the 2007–08 season, Grey’s Anatomy was able to charge $419,000 per commercial, compared to only $248,000 for a commercial during CSI, despite CSI having almost five million more viewers on average, because Grey’s Anatomy has a younger demographic. For similar reasons ads during Friends were almost three times as expensive as ads during Murder, She Wrote, even though they had comparable numbers of viewers.
One pattern I noticed as a kid was that all the commercial networks paid an unusual amount of attention to the Thursday night programming lineup. Many of the highest rated programs in the history of television aired on Thursday nights (Hill Street Blues,The Cosby Show, Cheers, Seinfeld, Frasier, Mad About You, Friends, ER, CSI, …). NBC called its Thursday night primetime lineup “Must See TV”. Why?
Because Thursday night is the last night of the week that a large, young, affluent audience will spend at home before the weekend. People tend to wait until the weekend to purchase more expensive products, like appliances and cars, or go to movies or concerts. This younger, affluent demographic tends to go out Friday and Saturday nights, so Thursday night is the most valuable time for advertisers to get exposure. Hence, the networks compete strongly for the audience share on Thursday nights, because the audience has the highest economic value from the point of view of advertisers.
All of this is obvious to anyone who works in commercial media, but like I said earlier, for the vast majority of us the economic function of the media we consume, and our role in the larger economic exchange, is invisible to us. We’re like Jim Carrey’s character Truman Burbank in the movie The Truman Show — we are the unwitting stars of a show in which we are the central character, surrounded by an elaborately constructed reality that exists to direct our attention and shape our will.
Understanding this reality is a first step toward media literacy. With this perspective in mind we can ask all sorts of critical questions about the relationship between commercial media, entertainment and popular culture. Consider, for example, the programming strategy of youth-oriented networks like Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel, the media properties (and personalities) they develop and the commercial ads they run. This rabbit hole goes deep.