There are secrets, and then there are lies.
First, a secret. Industry experts who make their living monitoring viewing numbers will tell you that you can’t tell what people are watching on TV by asking your friends or listening in on did-you-hear-what-happened-last-night-on-The-Walking-Dead conversations in the local coffee shop.
I’ve been called on that myself when the head of research at a major network told me that anecdotal evidence is at best misleading, and at worst just plain wrong.
Hardly a week goes by on The Walking Dead when it doesn’t trend near the top of Twitter feeds, while it’s on the air and for hours, even days afterward.
And yet, compared with CBS’s ratings chart topper NCIS, The Walking Dead is an afterthought: Last December’s midseason finale pulled in10.58 million viewers on the night, 6.53 million of those in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic.
Last May’s season finale of NCIS, on the other hand, clocked 18.01 million viewers, though it scored just a 2.5 rating in the coveted 18-49 demographic. The Walking Dead finale notched a 5.1 rating in that age group.
Many more viewers watch NCIS, in other words, than Walking Dead, but Walking Dead is more popular among younger viewers.
That’s hardly a surprise.
But, and here’s where it gets tricky, while younger viewers may be more coveted by advertisers, they’re also more fickle, and more apt to change their viewing habits.
That doesn’t mean they’re about to walk away from Walking Dead anytime soon, but it does mean they’re looking for more ways to watch it, whether by streaming it, downloading it or sharing it — legally or illegally — among their friends.
Older viewers, on the other hand, are more inclined to stay with the tried-and-true. They prefer to watch a favorite show on a comfortable couch in a home that’s been bought and paid for, on a ginormous high-definition big screen TV with surround sound, also bought and paid for.
Again, nothing new here. Content will always be king. Characters matter.
As long as storytellers keep creating dramas like Game of Thrones, Better Call Saul, and The Americans, there’ll always be a willing audience.
NCIS might not be as sharp and incisive as House of Cards, but it’s the TV equivalent of comfort food.
And there’s always been a place for comfort food on mainstream TV. The foundation of TV as mass entertainment was based on comfort food. I Love Lucy, M*A*S*H and The Mary Tyler Moore Show were always likely to draw a bigger crowd than prestige programs like The Forsyte Saga and Upstairs, Downstairs.
What is different now is the growing divide — call it a class divide, financial divide, old-fashioned snobbery, call it what you will — between the haves, those who have access to premium cable and streaming services like Amazon and Netflix, and the have-nots, those who rely exclusively on broadcast TV for their in-home entertainment.
In the original golden age of TV, one could choose between prestige dramas like The Paper Chase and Lou Grant or comfort food like Three’s Company and Welcome Back, Kotter virtually without changing the dial. That’s because every program on TV — both those worth seeing and those best avoided — was accessible on a handful of commercial networks available in every home. Ratings counted for more then because every viewer with a working TV set was exposed to the same shows. Popular tastes were easier to gauge.
The audience may have splintered now, thanks to the multichannel universe and streaming services like Netflix, but don’t think for a moment that TV is dying.
That’s the big lie.
TV is not dying. In fact, it has never been healthier. Its influence is incalculable. Record numbers for the Super Bowl; the growing influence, political and otherwise, of 24-hour news channels; continuing big numbers for Big Bang Theory; the almost overnight success of a quiet, modest, hard-to-sell relationship drama like This Is Us, all point to a healthy future for TV, at least in the near future.
But wait, there’s more.
TV drives social media, not the other way around. All those angry Twitter tweets over Walking Dead, all those Facebook fan pages for the latest singing sensation on The Voice, are prompted by something that first aired on TV.
TV also continues to reflect society in complex and unexpected ways.
The growing divide between the haves and have-nots was never more evident than in the recent election results. Only someone who ignored the TV ratings — not the 18-49 demographic but the overall audience numbers, counted in millions upon millions of viewers — could have been surprised by the recent U.S. election result. NCIS viewers voted, and they voted in the millions.
In an indirect, probably unintended way, The Walking Dead helped spread the message that America is under siege, a country that needs to be made great again. Walking Dead’s creators may not have been aware of just how deep an impact their creation was having — my guess is they had not idea — but the effect was there just the same.
NCIS, watched by more people, posits a world in which decent, hard-working professionals face a problem each week and solve it, neatly and tidily, over the course of an hour of TV time, bringing the bad guys to justice and tying up all the loose ends through diligence, effort, and old-fashioned hard work.
That’s a compelling message when viewers sitting at home are feeling anxious and uneasy about their world.
You may choose to agree or disagree. No doubt many NCIS viewers voted against the tide, just as many Walking Dead viewers may have bucked the trend in their age group — or not voted at all. A TV drama doesn’t top the ratings in swing states like Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois, though, without reflecting the general mood of viewers sitting at home.
One thing is clear. For all the talk of TV’s demise, it has never been more powerful or influential as a medium. It may be unhip and unfashionable to say, but I’ll say it anyway: Reports of TV’s death have been greatly exaggerated.