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Columns
'Water-cooler shows' run dry

Tuesday, December 24, 2002

By Brian Lowry, Los Angeles Times

Those who make TV, write about TV or merely watch a lot of TV have all had the experience: Offhandedly mention some hot series and be met with a vacant stare. It happens all the time at holiday gatherings where Hollywood types rub elbows with civilians that the showbiz trades refer to as "non-pros." And it reminds us that "water-cooler shows" -- programs so pervasive that anyone can discuss them, theoretically, around the office water cooler -- are nearly a thing of the past, as today's overflowing TV lineup filters the audience for most shows down to a trickle.

 
 
U.S. homes are tuning out

Ratings show how a gradually dwindling percentage of U.S. homes tune in for hit series, based on the year various TV shows became No. 1.

Show/Season/Percentage

dot.gif “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” 2002-03, 17.6

dot.gif “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” 1999-00, 18.6

dot.gif “Seinfeld,” 1994-95, 20.5

dot.gif “Roseanne,” 1988-89, 25.5

dot.gif “The Cosby Show,” 1985-86, 33.8

dot.gif “Dallas,” 1980-81, 31.2

dot.gif “Happy Days,” 1976-77, 31.5

dot.gif “All in the Family,” 1971-72, 34.0

dot.gif “Bonanza,” 1964-65, 36.3

dot.gif “Gunsmoke,” 1957-58, 43.1

dot.gif “I Love Lucy,” 1952-53, 67.3

Los Angeles Times

   
 

Somebody just scanning news coverage from November could easily surmise that "everyone" watched -- or at least is abuzz about -- "The Bachelor" or "The Osbournes," in much the same way that much of America came to a stop when "I Love Lucy" aired in its heyday.

So, for those who consider "The Bachelor" -- as one of my non-pro relatives put it -- "the stupidest thing on television," here's a dispatch from the glass-half-full department: An estimated 244 million TV-owning U.S. residents were doing something else when ABC presented the show's namesake popping the question to his blushing made-for-TV betrothed.

As for "The Osbournes," the 6.6 million viewers that MTV recorded on Nov. 26 is certainly terrific by cable standards, but in the rush to accentuate the positive in those ratings, most accounts ignored the fact that more than 97 percent of the population passed on deciphering Ozzy's unique gibberish.

According to Nielsen Media Research, the TV viewing pool consists of 272 million people ages 2 and older. (Infants watch too, but until they can say, "I want that," Madison Avenue doesn't care.) On an average night, 105 million are watching TV at any given moment.

Not surprisingly, with channels catering to almost every taste, the audience is diffused. As a result, although millions were glued to the set during "The Bachelor" finale, in the aggregate, three times as many viewed something else, whether it was NBC's "The West Wing," "Benjamin Franklin" on PBS, ESPN's "SportsCenter," "The Andy Griffith Show" on TV Land, "The Producers" on Bravo or "Jaws" for the umpteenth time on TNT. And tens of millions more watched -- get this -- nothing at all. This isn't to say that popular programs don't reach huge numbers of people. In fact, network television remains highly viable as a marketing medium, thanks to its still-unique ability to amass millions of eyeballs at the same time.

Moreover, in an era of frenetic lifestyles and an ever-expanding array of leisure options, popular culture is one of the few spheres of such commonality. In that context, getting more than 25 million people to agree on anything, as they do when tuning in "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" or "ER," is pretty remarkable and explains why studios pay through the nose to advertise new movie releases each Thursday night.

The problem is that as connecting with the public grows more challenging, newspapers, magazines and other media outlets have a tendency to get caught up in the promotional hype and feed perceptions that such programs are more widely viewed than they truly are.

Too often lost amid such gee-whiz coverage, meanwhile, is any perspective that even the most-watched series -- "CSI" and "Friends" -- currently reach only about a tenth of the audience each week, and that such critical darlings as "The Sopranos" -- although the subject of cocktail chatter when the media elites gather in New York and L.A. -- attract considerably fewer.

For that matter, less than a third of U.S. viewers drop in during the Academy Awards, with not quite one in six (about 42 million) watching last year's ceremony at any given moment. The Super Bowl, in essence our national day of media gluttony, is the most singular exception to this fragmentation, with nearly half the population tuning in for at least part of the telecast.

Such ratings for big events and hit series are nothing to sneeze at, but other than the Super Bowl, it's all a far cry from the days when people had a better than one-in-three chance that their office mates had seen "The Cosby Show" or "Gunsmoke" the night before.

Of course, America's relationship with television itself has changed dramatically over the years. In the early 1950s, when more than 60 percent of TV owners viewed "I Love Lucy" or Milton Berle on "Texaco Star Theater," less than half the population owned a TV set. Since 1980, 98 percent of U.S. homes have had a TV, and most now possess two or three -- some larger than a screen at the local multiplex.

Because TV is so ubiquitous, it's tempting to ascribe larger significance to its most popular offerings or, rather absurdly, use such fabricated events as "The Bachelor" or "Survivor" to launch serious discussions of sexual or office politics -- a plausible notion, I would suggest, only if being isolated with two dozen fame-seeking former beauty queens and cheerleaders suddenly becomes a widespread phenomenon.

For those left cold by such analysis, then, it's surely comforting to step back and note that most people resist the "nonstop media hype," as even an MTV executive acknowledged, for something like "The Osbournes."

Who knew? Despite the media drumbeat for such programs as "American Idol" and "The Bachelor," you can be un-hip, not with the in crowd, not know a single contestant's name and actually be more in step than any People magazine-devouring trend-chaser.

If this amounts to little more than a brief reality check, consider it an overdue one -- not just on behalf of those who see the parade of "reality" shows as a blight on humanity, but for everyone who, if asked about those shows around the water cooler, would respond with a blank stare.

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