The changing concept of TV ratings

Recent report from Netflix about the number of viewers for certain movies and TV shows raises questions about what ratings actually are in today’s world:

These numbers were presumably the flashiest numbers that Netflix had to offer, but, hot damn, they are flashy—even if they should be treated with much skepticism. For one thing, of Netflix’s 139 million global subscribers, only about 59 million are American, something to bear in mind when comparing Netflix’s figures with the strictly domestic ratings of most linear channels. Another sticking point: What constitutes “watching”? According to Netflix, the numbers reflect households where someone watched at least 70 percent of one episode—given the Netflix model, it seems likely that most people started with Episode 1—but this doesn’t tell us how many people stuck with it, or what the average rating for the season was, which is, again, an important metric for linear channels…

Ratings are not just a reflection of how many people are watching a TV show. They are not just a piece of data about something that has already happened. They are also a piece of information that changes what happens, by defining whether we think of something as a hit, which has a knock-on effect on how much attention gets paid to that show, not just by other prospective viewers, but by the media. (Think how much more has been written on You now that we know 40 million people may have watched it.)

Consider, for example, how something like last year’s reboot of Roseanne might have played out if it had been a Netflix series. It would have been covered like crazy before its premiere and then, in the absence of any information about its ratings at all, would have become, like, what? The Ranch? So much of the early frenzy surrounding Roseanne had to do with its enormous-for-our-era ratings, and what those ratings meant. By the same token, years ago I heard—and this is pure rumor and scuttlebutt I am sharing because it’s a fun thought exercise—that at that time Narcos was Netflix’s most popular series. Where is Narcos in the cultural conversation? How would that position have changed if it was widely known that, say, 15 million people watch its every season?

Multiple factors are at play here including the decline of network television, the rise of cable television and streaming services, the general secrecy Netflix has about its ratings, and how today we define cultural hits. The last one seems the most interesting to me as a cultural sociologist: in a fragmented media world, how do we know what is a genuine cultural moment or touchstone compared to being a small fad or a trend isolated to a small group? Ratings were once a way to do this as we could assume big numbers meant it mattered to a lot of people.

Additionally, we today want quicker news about new trends and patterns. A rating can only tell us so much. It depends how it was measured. How does the rating compare to other ratings? Perhaps most importantly, the rating cannot tell us a lot about the lasting cultural contributions of the show or movie. Some products with big ratings will not stand the test of time while others will. Do we think people will be discussing You and talking about its impact on society in 30 years? We need time to discuss, analyze, and process what each cultural product is about. Cultural narratives involving cultural products need time to develop.

Popular HGTV show leads to local tourism boost – but what are the lasting effects?

Many HGTV shows are tenuously connected to actual communities – the focus is on the homes and personalities, not the neighborhoods and community. Fixer Upper and the efforts of the Gaines family in Waco, Texas may then be quite unique:

In 2015, they opened Magnolia Market, a home goods store that sells Mrs. Gaines’s mass-produced collections of bohemian farmhouse décor, and quickly followed with a bakery, garden shop and a turf-lawn park built near two old silos that had been constructed in 1950 by the Brazos Valley Cotton Oil Company. They also opened a nearby restaurant, Magnolia Table, in the former Elite Café, a longtime favorite that closed in 2016 after several different owners and renovations. When the Gaineses took it over, they installed subway tile along the walls, exposed the wood beams in the ceiling and stuck an ever-changing marquee sign out front. Naturally, the renovation was featured on their show.

No one’s complaining. The number of tourists to Waco has tripled in the four years since “Fixer Upper” first aired, with some 1.7 million people visiting in the first seven months of 2018 alone, and other local businesses have flourished with the influx. Carla Pendergraft, director of marketing for the Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the appeal of the “Fixer Upper” brand has had a profound impact on the city.

Several quick thoughts::

1. The article touts increased tourism and a few local businesses that have benefited from the popularity of the show. Lacking are numbers about increased jobs and increased tax revenues.

2. The biggest bonus to Waco seems to be less about economics and more about status: the Gaines have helped make the city cool.

3. How long will this effect last? When Fixer Upper is done, will the family still exert the same pull on people? And if this trend dies down, how will the community of Waco respond? My guess would be that this uptick in tourism and interest will fade away if the Gaines are not as visible.

4. The concept of TV driven tourism is an intriguing one. People want to visit popular TV sites, like the Brady Bunch house for the Soprano’s home. Should more cities take advantage of shows that have strong connections to certain locations? Imagine Chicago building a full campaign around the Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D., and Chicago Med galaxy.

HGTV cashes in on the popularity of the suburban Brady Bunch home

The iconic home of the Brady family on The Brady Bunch may have a number of confusing features but it is still popular: HGTV is working on a show about the renovation of the home.

The Studio City, Calif., residence was pictured in each episode before the camera took viewers inside the family’s abode. Those scenes, which featured, for example, the kitchen where housekeeper Alice (the late Ann B. Davis) dished out jokes or the girls’ bedroom, where Marcia Brady brushed her hair, were shot on a soundstage.

The house changed hands over the summer, when the network snapped up the property for an unknown price. (Former ‘N Sync member and Brady Bunch die-hard fan Lance Bass narrowly missed out on the place in a bidding war.)

HGTV revealed in August that it had placed the winning bid and would restore the home “to its 1970s glory” as part of a new show.

On Thursday, the network announced that A Very Brady Renovation is set to premiere in September 2019. Home renovation pros from HGTV will “reimagine the popular show’s interior set design, working to ensure that the final renovation results stay true to the spirit of the Brady Bunch family home that everyone loves and remembers,” according to a press release. In other words, the iconic staircase and the retro hues used in the home will remain.

Perhaps this is what nostalgia about postwar suburban life looks like: it is filtered through television. Instead of having a show about updating postwar suburban homes (imagine an HGTV show solely devoted to the iconic Levittown and other mass produced suburbs), a network banks on a fictional suburban home. If this Brady Bunch renovation show works, I imagine more shows featuring famous TV homes could occur.

This whole concept makes some sense. Television emerged at the same time as the suburbs. Certain shows, including the Brady Bunch, became associated with suburban America. Some have argued the depictions of suburbs on television helped encourage suburban development – I’m not sure there is much evidence for that. Still, the suburban TV show following the exploits of a nuclear family and kids developed in this time and is still a genre today.

But, I could also imagine some alternative ways that a home like that of the Brady Bunch could enter the realm of nostalgia:

  1. Becoming a museum. Imagine either someone purchasing the property and turning it into a museum or a local government acquiring the property. Put a little money into the home to set up some displays, charge a manageable entrance fee, and the facility is up and running.
  2. Since the first option might cause some zoning issues, move the whole home to a place – museum, theme park, TV studio – better suited to host visitors to the home. What if there was a theme park built around TV buildings or even just around depicted suburban homes?

 

How close to San Francisco does a house have to be to be considered “in San Francisco”?

The short answer: closer than north of Oakland on the east side of San Francisco Bay.

The current edition of Brother vs. Brother on HGTV features two homes undergoing renovation in the Bay Area. However, they are located in the suburbs of El Sobrante and Pinole, respectively a 45 minute and one hour drive from San Francisco. This is similar to a post from years back when I wrote about Procure Proton Therapy claiming a “close to downtown Chicago” location with their Warrenville facility. Can the show truly claim to be about houses in San Francisco?

I would say no for three primary reasons:

  1. The location is just too far away from San Francisco to claim it is in the city. One could visit San Francisco from these locations but the show is not about San Francisco; it is about suburban housing. This is particularly noticeable in each episode with the size of the homes, the price of the homes, and the property each house sits on.
  2. This is not just about being relatively far our from the big city; the homes are also beyond Oakland. The Bay Area is a unique one in that there are three major cities within a relatively short distance from each other: San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose. The largest in population is San Jose, the 11th largest city in the country, followed by San Francisco at 13th, and Oakland at 45th. Even though San Jose is closest to Silicon Valley, San Francisco is the most prestigious city with Oakland trailing both. If these suburban homes are to be connected to a big city, Oakland would technically be more accurate.
  3. Many suburbanites rarely make it into the big city if they do not work there or have business that regularly takes them there. They may still identify with the big city in the region, especially when talking with people from other parts of the country or world who have little knowledge of little communities but know certain big cities. Yet, their day-to-day experience is markedly different from that of a San Francisco resident.

I know the marketing is driving this. “Brother vs. Brother: San Francisco” is a lot more exciting than “Brother vs. Brother: Bay Area Suburbs.” Still, the consistent shots of San Francisco is a bit much when these are suburban homes that could fit in many regions across the United States.

 

Does it matter if Roseanne is set in a real place?

After thinking about whether Roseanne is set in Elgin, Illinois and the inconsistencies of the show’s location, I arrived at a broader question: does a fictional television show really need a location? And a second question follows: does it serve the writers or the viewers better to have a clear location?

To answer the first question, I think the answer is no. As noted in the earlier posts, much of the action in television dramas and sitcoms takes place among a limited number of characters in a limited number of locations. In some shows, the characters hardly ever leave their residence or work. In other shows, character are out and about more but they are often in generic locations that may signal something about a particular city – skyscrapers! lots of traffic! – but do not necessarily depend on a particular location. Think Friends: they are clearly in New York City yet the unique daily life of the city rarely is part of the plot (perhaps outside of the ongoing question of how people with those kinds of jobs can afford apartments like that). Could the show easily be set in Seattle or London or Houston without substantially altering the key relationships between characters and the narrative arcs? Many shows just need enough information to slot into a typical narrative that fits a location: the big city story, the suburban life, small town doings, etc.

To the second question, I think both the writers and viewers could be served well with some idea of where the show is taking place even as this geographic identity may mean little for the show. Our everyday lives are highly impacted by the spaces in which we operate, even if critics would argue suburbanization has rendered all the American suburbs the same or globalization has homogenized experiences within and across cultures. It might be hard to truly invest in a story or narrative arc if it literally could take place anywhere. Having a recognizable place or name at least gives people something to work with in their imaginations, even if the shows do not fully explore their geographic context. The small nods to geography can also serve to help differentiate shows from each other: the New York version is slightly different compared to the Los Angeles or the Chicago version. (Again, we usually do not get a broad palette of American locations but rather easily identifiable locations.) If anything, the restricted number of possible locations helps studios who can make backlots look like many places. (And you can see this on studio tours: we took a tour a few years ago of Warner Bros. where the set for Gilmore Girls, small town Connecticut, Desperate Housewives, suburban everywhere, and the big city were all a short distance from each other. And once you have viewed these sets up close, you see them all over in commercials, shows, and films.)

Coming back to Roseanne: I do not think it really matters that it is modeled on Elgin, Illinois or uses an exterior shot of a home from Evansville, Indiana. It could easily be set outside of Milwaukee, Cleveland, Buffalo, and dozens of other locations where working-class Americans live. Having a rough approximation of a location outside of Chicago may have helped writers and viewers place the show but it is not terribly consequential for the themes of the show or the characters.

 

The geographic inconsistencies of Roseanne and the placelessness of TV shows

Roseanne may be based on Elgin, Illinois but the show draws on various locations in Illinois and Indiana:

“Roseanne” is filmed on a studio lot in Los Angeles, but is set in the fictional Illinois town of Lanford. Where in Illinois is Lanford supposed to be? Some conflicting clues about the town’s location are sprinkled throughout the series, which originally aired from 1988-97.

Consider Season 1, Episode 20. Amid fierce winds, Dan Conner turns on the radio for the weather report: “As of 5 p.m. Central Standard Time, a tornado watch is in effect for Fulton County.” Darlene Conner bursts into the room: “Hey, that’s us!” In real life, Fulton County is west of Peoria.

Now Season 8, Episode 7. While in the car with her sister, Roseanne Conner suggests going to “that big outlet mall up in Elgin.” Jackie Harris sniffs, “Elgin? That’s an hour away.”

A representative for the ABC network, which aired “Roseanne” in the ’90s and will air the new season starting March 27, said Elgin is used as the reference for Lanford, both geographically and demographically…

The exterior of the Conner home is also not an authentic representation of Illinois. The series features shots of a house in Evansville, Ind., about 325 miles away from Elgin.

Geographic inconsistencies are not unknown in Hollywood. Television shows use various devices – verbal suggestions, establishing shots and some exterior images, fandom for local sports teams, architecture, attempts at accents or local eccentricities – to suggest a location but rarely pinpoint a real life location or community. What we see is more of a pastiche of a location. Most of the action takes place inside in interior settings or generic outdoor settings that could be anywhere. The shows want to both hint at a particular place and be generic enough to appeal to a broad audience. Roseanne may claim to be about Elgin, Illinois but it has to roughly match hundreds of working-class locations (or match perceptions of working-class places) across the United States.

More broadly, this suggests television shows may be more or less explicitly attached to particular cities and locations (crime shows often are) and yet they often exist in a placeless world much of the time. If anything, the biggest cities in the United States – New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago – are the most depicted on television while other cities or smaller communities are anonymized. But, even these big cities are not really the focus of the action; the characters swoop in and around recognizable locations while certain parts of cities or everyday urban life never are on the screen. This is depicted effectively on The Simpsons where the location of Springfield is not clear, the city itself and its surrounding area can change according to the whims of the writers, and the action ranges from the mundane to the absurd.

The (inaccurate?) depiction of Elgin, Illinois in Roseanne

The TV show Roseanne is set in a fictional town modeled after communities in northern Illinois:

Show star Roseanne Barr told the Hollywood Reporter in February that the working class sitcom’s fictional setting of Lanford is based on Elgin. The producers even conducted a focus group in Elgin before embarking on what is the 10th season for the show, which last had new episodes in 1997.

Fictional, gritty Lanford may be modeled after Elgin, but local residents said it’s not really an accurate reflection of their hometown…

Southwest side resident Vicky Lundy, 53, said she’s picked up on some geographical errors in placing where Elgin would be, particularly in relationship to Chicago. One episode implied that Chicago was so far away that one of Roseanne’s granddaughter’s couldn’t afford to buy a bus ticket to the big city. Another has a branch of the University of Illinois in St. Charles, which has a U of I extension, not a campus.

Kim Lang, 41, of South Elgin noted that on the “Roseanne” reboot, “there are no Hispanics anywhere, which is a core element (of the Elgin area).”

Three quick thoughts:

  1. Rarely have I seen residents of or local officials in communities depicted on television suggest that the TV portrayal was accurate. It is hard to know whether local residents are unable to see their community from a birds-eye perspective, whether locals only perceive television as promoting negative ideas, or whether television shows cannot easily capture community life (see #2).
  2. Many television sitcoms and dramas involve a limited number of characters and do not actually depict much of the larger community. The focus of the show is Roseanne’s family, not the larger community of Lanford. In many such sitcoms, the family rarely leaves the inside of their house or their yard. On the whole, I do not think television shows are usually set up to portray a whole community (outside of some establishing shots and occasional references or interactions).
  3. Working-class communities are not depicted much on television and are not necessarily depicted favorably. (For example, see the documentary: Class Dismissed: How TV Frames the Working Class.) Many sitcoms revolve around middle- to upper-class families that have sizable homes, rarely work, and encounter certain issues but not others.

As a thought exercise, we could think about what a television show would need to be to truly capture life in Elgin, Illinois. A more diverse set of characters? Regular interactions out in the community at known sites? Elgin is a large suburb of over 100,000 people and while it has a more traditional downtown, it is also quite sprawling. Could an accurate depiction fit with typical conventions of how television shows are made?