Today's apparently "inside baseball" day around here when it comes to television.
I've been lucky enough to work for some very highly rated TV news operations during my career; on the other hand, I've also done time pushing bottom-of-the-barrel product -- both in overall quality and, often consequently, ratings. Strangely, there are times when the latter is more enjoyable than the former -- at least from a "personal entertainment" perspective. I say this because there's nothing more amusing than watching the management team of a failing network or station engage in a little creative accounting when it comes to ratings. Invariably at the end of each sweeps period -- or when, say, an industry story breaks announcing that there's been some sort of upheaval in the number of viewers watching the various outlets -- the powers that be can always be counted on to trot out an in-house statistician to cleverly spin those numbers in favor of the television operation that pays his or her salary.
The result usually sounds something like this:
"Well, yes, our competition is stomping us like we were a hippie at Altamont, seven days a week, 24 hours a day across the board. But if you look at the all-important, advertiser-coveted demographic of mixed-race 42-43-year-old women whose names begin with the letter "M" -- who live in the vicinity of a used Kia dealership and who claim to have once slept with the bassist in a mid-level rock band back in the 80s -- then, hey, we're #1 from 10:19am to 10:23am, Tuesday through Thursday. Great job, everybody!"
If you've ever wondered how just about every local station and national network can somehow claim to be "The Most Watched," there you have it. Just slap a little asterisk next to that assertion, qualifying it, and you're good to go.
Work in a newsroom long enough and you get used to this kind of nonsense; it's done all the time. But what usually isn't done -- what's so brazen that only the ballsiest news departments, or the most detached from reality, would try to pull it off -- is what CNN's doing right now.
In case you haven't heard, CNN's had a very, very bad October. The network, for the first time, has fallen to fourth place among the cable news outlets in prime time. Now if you're thinking to yourself, "Wait, aren't there only three cable news networks?" you're missing the salient point here -- the one that makes this so epochal in the cable universe: CNN's now behind even its sister network, HLN. (Credit for HLN's success can no doubt be pinned on the decision to abbreviate the oh-so-wordy "Headline News.") In the beloved 25-54 demo, CNN's prime time lineup is dwarfed in the numbers not only by Fox and MSNBC, but also by HLN; in fact, in an insulting pimp slap of epic proportions, Anderson Cooper's 10pm show, AC360, which owned its time slot a year ago, is now getting its ass kicked not only by Greta Van Susteren on Fox, but by replays of the 8pm editions of Nancy Grace and Keith Olbermann.
CNN's answer to this gargantuan slight? Well, instead of narrowing the focus of the ratings pool until the picture looks more favorable, it's now choosing to conveniently broaden the pool. A CNN spokesperson says, "As we have said for years, we measure our audience across all CNN Worldwide platforms and throughout the day, not just prime time." In other words, CNN's counting all of its programming on all of its entities -- national and international -- all day long. (Who the hell knows, maybe they're even lumping in HLN, as it's all just one big, happy CNN family, right?)
In other words, since, like every other network out there, it's been guilty in the past of selective sampling to make its claims of dominance, CNN is trying to have it both ways. The network bombastically promoted its prime time hegemony when it had it, and now hides behind, literally, a numbers game when it doesn't.
In CNN's defense -- and in my opinion this is a point truly worth defending -- the network does traffic in far less obnoxious partisan bloviation in prime time than its rivals. (Or, in the case of Nancy Grace, at least slightly less obscene, self-serving coverage of whatever pretty white girl happens to be missing at the moment.) When there's actually, you know, news to report -- CNN's ratings consistently climb. But this fact doesn't make it acceptable, or honest, for CNN to adhere to one set of standards for ratings when it suits the needs of the network's promotions department, then move the goalpost when things get a little dicey.
In the end, though, the way the network's spinning lousy numbers to the outside world doesn't matter much anyway. What really matters is what's going on inside CNN in the wake of this news.
And I can promise you, the network's doing anything but believing its own bullshit right about now.
*Totally not true.