I’ve been watching seasons of the CBS sitcom Big Bang Theory on DVD recently. It’s a decent sitcom with a serviceable premise: four genius-level nerds with differing and severe social disorders cope with life in Los Angeles, city of beautiful people. Plus, a hot chick lives across the hall from two of them which adds to the stammering merriment. It’s pretty satisfying in the way I feel that most television should be: each episode is fairly well encapsulated and the situation resets to its default by the time each half hour is up. In the current season I’m watching, season three, the main character begins dating the blond woman from across the hall, but this is no more a progression in the story as it is fodder for several more ludicrous premises.
So I’m pretty okay with Big Bang Theory. However, I find it unbelievable that it’s the highest-rated sitcom on Thursday nights and one of the highest-rated comedies on television, period. Thursday night, my patient readers and millions of television watchers will recall, is when NBC runs three hours of comedy programming, at least an hour of which is worthwhile. And the kicker is that one of the more worthwhile shows, Community, goes up against Big Bang Theory head-to-head each week, and loses.
If you’ve never seen either show, well you’ve probably stopped reading this essay by now. But if you’ve seen both shows, then you might be as befuddled as I. Using my New York myopia, I can see how Big Bang Theory might be more palatable to middle America than Community, but the former blows the latter away in ratings every week, practically quadruple the number of viewers. And part of me (the same New York myopia, just a different facet) feels like Big Bang Theory wouldn’t sit will with the Bible Belt and fundamentalist America. I mean, the show’s theme song describes the creation of the universe through the big bang theory and goes on to detail evolution. The main characters are physicists trying to determine the behaviors of subatomic particles. And there was even one episode where the most autistic character decried Christmas as a pointless sham. I don’t think that would fly in Kentucky.
Seems to me that the real culprit here is the Nielsen ratings system, a technique developed by Arthur Nielsen in the 1920s to establish demographic groups, then applied to radio in the 1930s, and finally to television in the 1950s. Even armchair statisticians would be thoroughly impressed with Nielsen’s model, which extrapolates the entire nation’s television viewing habits from a small sample. There’s only one flaw with the Neilsen ratings system, and that is the system doesn’t really work.
I think it worked many decades ago when the sampling was much lower. To have a television in 1950 was a big deal, they were expensive and often entire families and groups of neighbors huddled around them to watch the flickering screen. There were only three broadcast networks which ran during daylight hours; programming was limited. Now, most homes with televisions have two or three in them. The kids have their own, the parents have one in the living room, one in the bedroom. Often, people could be watching PBS downstairs and American Idol upstairs. So the notion of “household viewing” doesn’t apply as much any more. It didn’t even apply when I was a kid and would be watching Growing Pains in my room while my parents watched Some Boring Foreign Movie downstairs, and my grandmother would watch Dynasty or Some Shit on the first floor.
But the main problem with the Nielsen ratings system is the stupidly small size of the absolutely not random sampling of the populace by which they make their determinations. There are twenty-five thousand households participating in the Nielsen system–all of them by choice, all of them aware that they are contributing to these ratings–and that only constitutes 0.02% of the total households in America. So 0.02% of the television watchers in America determine which show is most popular, and therefore which show can charge the most for advertising. I don’t give a shit what anyone says, Community is far and away a better show than Big Bang Theory, though some manufacturers might not bode well the idea of advertising during a prime-time television show where the main character wears hair gel. And so these companies might have a vested interest in perpetuating the outmoded Nielsen technique.
Or maybe not. It may not be a great conspiracy, merely a bumbling, shitty system that we’re saddled with, even though the technology exists today that can determine viewers’ habits to a much more specific degree. Our own cable and digital satellite companies know more about America’s viewing habits than the Nielsen ratings system, for crap’s sake. It seems unfair that a relatively witty and creative show like Community must be relegated to obscurity, and probably an early cancellation, because this one statistics company has turned its sights on a lot of hardcore Big Bang Theory fans instead of taking a better sample. However, the fact that we’re using this antiquated system does give me some hope that perhaps people aren’t as entranced by American Idol as the numbers purport. Now I’m really kidding myself.