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Small ratings = big spinning

TAKING A RARE PAGE FROM THE “happy news” file for anxious TV execs, people are watching more television than ever, suggesting that gleeful prognostication about new media killing off TV is, for now anyway, a lot of chicken-little hogwash.

Yet the very innovations that contribute to keeping people glued to the tube have simultaneously depressed audience levels for all but the top programs. This has heightened not only the intense competition for ratings, but an equally ferocious battle to craft the most convoluted and tortured ratings claims — in essence, trying to sound like the tallest Hobbit in the room.

First, the Nielsen figures, which estimate the average U.S. home had the TV on eight hours and 11 minutes per day last season, with an average individual watching for 4½ hours. Those numbers represent an increase of roughly 13% versus a decade ago, despite all the iPods and Internet chatrooms clamoring for our time and attention.

Although the initial response to growing TV use is one of mild surprise, it really shouldn’t be. After all, people receive more channels than ever before, on more TV sets per home. Those sets have also become more clear and dazzling (for the big ones) or portable and unobtrusive (the small ones), to the point where escaping TV is an accomplishment.

The extra channels, meanwhile, speak to diverse audiences within the same home and aggressively target narrow demographics through all parts of the day. The gamut ranges from gossipy chat, sports highlights and cartoons for mom, dad and junior in the morning to lewd cartoons and uncut movies for junior’s older siblings through the evening/wee-morning hours.

Beyond that, TiVo and similar recording wizards serve up shows viewers want when they want them, so attending a PTA meeting no longer requires missing a favorite like “Lost” or “The Daily Show.”

Add to that the not-so-comforting fact that Americans are more obese and inert than ever. Faster lives demanding faster food, leaving many of us too bloated to lift much more than the remote.

Hey, nice 24-Hour Fitness ad. Now please pass the nachos.

So sure, someone’s watching TV in the house during half our waking hours. It’s just that those 290 million potential viewers are scattered across multiple rooms, watching different programs on their own set — including the shocking percentage of children that now have an electronic friend all their own.

The major networks, as a consequence, increasingly wake up to numbers that aren’t far removed from cable, which has already muddied the discourse surrounding ratings — and when words like “hit” and “sensation” can be rightfully used.

Put simply, as numbers get smaller, percentages grow bigger. That means when your 0.4 rating becomes a 0.6, viewership has “soared” 50%, even if that shift practically falls within a statistical margin of error, or could represent a couple of people with Nielsen meters ordering take-out pizza instead of going to dinner.

Granted, if most reporters were adept at math, we’d have more respectable jobs, but even Stephen Hawking might be struck dumb by some modern press releases, which slice and dice ratings with the skill of a sushi chef. And despite my sympathy for flacks and research departments, I can’t resist sharing a few of the “No. 1 with one-legged vegetarian” boasts issued since the new TV season began. (Not surprisingly, most of them have to do with Thursday, since everyone except CBS and NBC has labored to catch flies that night for years.)

  • “Night Stalker” qualifies as ABC’s “highest-rated scripted series debut on Thursday in over five years” and “strongest adult 18-49 rating with regular programming (at 9 p.m.) in over seven months.” So no specials, sports, or reality shows, extending all the way back to last spring. Gotcha.

  • UPN’s “Everybody Hates Chris” increased time-period viewership by “189% in women 18-34 and 211% in women 18-49 versus a year ago.” Right, as opposed to all the gals tuning in when “WWE Smackdown” played there.

  • The WB earned its first No. 1 ranking “in an adult demographic against major broadcast competition on a Thursday.” When it rained. In Toledo.

  • “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart” “improved 15%” from its first to its second half-hour. Yep, from a fourth-place 2.0 to a 2.3. And when the rating for that opening half-hour dips to a 1.0, it’ll be a 30% gain if it grows by a similar margin.

Granted, perception can be half the battle, but let’s adopt new terminology to recognize today’s changing viewing patterns. For starters, no program below a 2.5 rating should be affixed to verbs like “soar,” “surge” or “leap,” rather limiting any mention of increases to “inch,” “creep” and “crawl.”

Finally, when all that embroidery is finished, networks can brag about the nature of their audience — that is, which programs attract viewers who are younger, richer and more likely to buy a car, say, based on how well it corners in a blizzard with a stunt driver behind the wheel.

This, alas, is the sorry state to which fragmentation has brought us: “My 2 rating can beat up your 2 rating.”

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