Why Can’t TV Get it Right?

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The August 25 episode of “The Newsroom” offered a line of dialogue that amused the small fraternity of geeks who think about media measurement.  Sam Watterson, playing the news division president at the highly fictionalized Atlantis Cable News, gleefully tells Jeff Daniels, the new anchor, that the “fast nationals” for the previous night’s show reported a whopping 5.8 million viewers.  He goes on to say, “That’s going to double when they add Live Plus Same Day and Live Plus Seven.”

Let’s deconstruct that sentence: “Fast Nationals” is the Nielsen term for the stream ratings for the previous night’s national broadcasts.  “Live plus same day” and “Live Plus Seven” are the follow-up ratings that are delivered once additional viewing from DVRs  is included (i.e., one rating includes timeshifted viewing through the day of the original broadcast and other includes viewing through seven days later.)

What’s funny about this comment, though, is the notion that the ratings for a news show would ever double over the course of a week.  A major axiom of media research is that because news (and sports) content is stale as soon as it’s broadcast, news shows only gets a very small bump from timeshifted viewing.  Shows that manage to double their ratings from DVR viewing are almost always scripted programs with very devoted audiences.

It’s probably unfair to single out one line of dialogue from a script in which practically every plotline and scene is farfetched, but if you’re going to use arcane language that 99% of the audience won’t understand, it might as well be accurate.  And when you have a TV show about a TV show you expect the details to be right.

It’s possible the producers of “The Newsroom” sit around talking about Live Plus Seven and that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin thought that news executives had the same conversations. He probably wanted to sound insidery and add verisimilitude to the dialogue, but he outsmarted himself by not understanding that entertainment and news ratings are different. It makes you wonder what else on the show is cockeyed.

Which raises a question: Why can’t TV get the details right?   Even on something that TV should know a lot about, like TV ratings?

I’m not just talking about the eye-rolling aspects of TV programs, like the enormous New York City apartments that sitcom characters always occupy or the many beautiful female characters who fall in love with unattractive guys.  I’m not even talking about the many liberties that TV writers take in depicting the way cops, doctors, lawyers and U.S. presidents do their jobs. I’m talking about areas where the writers should know better but don’t seem to care.

Take, for example, Larry David’s recent HBO movie “Clear History.” David plays a marketing genius hired by an electric car company run by Jon Hamm, and the premise of the story is that David quits his job in a huff after Hamm names the new car after his son Howard. He subsequently loses out on a huge stock windfall when the car is a major consumer success and becomes a laughing stock for acting so impetuously. But here’s the thing: the name of a new brand is the single most important marketing decision a company can make. For the CEO to have made that decision unilaterally is a slap in the face to his Chief Marketing Officer.  David’s character HAD to resign under those circumstances; otherwise he couldn’t have kept his self-respect.

OK, so “Clear History” is only a comedy and shouldn’t be held to documentary-like standards of realism.  Still, as the scriptwriter, why couldn’t David have spent ten more minutes thinking up a more convincing explanation of why he quit the company?   (This is a problem that also plagues “Curb Your Enthusiasm” from time to time.  Too many of the situations he gets himself into are just not believable.)

Writers HATE it when nitpickers like me complain that a TV show is “not like real life.” Real life is boring, they say, and people watch TV to escape. Besides the writers are trying to reach a deeper emotional truth.  I understand that they don’t want to bog down a story with unnecessary detail.  And no one is suggesting setting The New Yorker’s fact checkers loose in the writers’ room.  But TV producers could try harder not to break the mood with obvious and avoidable goofs. A little creative license is OK as long as the end result feels real.

It’s not like it can’t be done.  The shows that strived hard for both emotional and technical realism are some of the most highly regarded shows ever.  “NYPD Blue,” “The Shield,” “The Wonder Years,” “Scrubs,” and “Mad Men” all told stories that were sometimes over the top, but the fictional worlds they created were rarely undone by plot details that didn’t make sense.

Or take Larry David’s previous creation, “Seinfeld.”  Although that series spun some tall tales, it never (until the final episode, alas) felt preposterous, forced, or untrue to the essential essence of the characters.  Larry David (and others) should take some lessons from his earlier self.

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