When the much-vaunted clash of the television titans in the form of Campbell Live and Seven Sharp gets under way on Monday all eyes will be on the ratings.
Can the new kid on the block, Seven Sharp, hold or build on to the solid ratings of its predecessor Close Up or will it get trounced by the tried and true Campbell Live?
It is a question which TV One and TV3, not to mention their advertisers, will be fixated on for the foreseeable future.
Every morning as they retrieve the previous night’s ratings there will be a deathly silence as they scan each and every demographic to see who is getting the upper hand.
Depending on who is in the ascendancy, there will be some desperately serious soul-searching from the underdog – masked, of course, by an outward air of nonchalance and insouciance.
The sad reality, though, is that all television executives are besotted with ratings, venting their spleen on hapless producers and presenters when viewing figures head south.
But what they do not realise, or wish to admit, is that the ratings game is a ridiculous and meaningless pastime.
It is a phony war that’s played out by otherwise sane and sensible people.
There’s a lot of pseudo scientific hocus pocus about the way ratings are determined, and despite what those in the television industry say it is all smoke and mirrors.
Ratings are largely determined by 600 “People Meters” placed in homes around the country which supposedly contain a cross-section of around 1500 New Zealanders.
They are designed to measure viewing habits by taking regular readings of who is watching what at any given time of the day and feeding the results to television companies and advertising agencies.
What they deliver is so inexact as to be risible. But no one tells the advertisers this as they may start wondering whether the $650 million a year they shell out on television advertising is being targeted at the right programmes.
Sure, the meters provide a snapshot of what people may be watching, but they do not say whether they are actually paying attention to the programme in question or whether they think it’s good, bad or indifferent.
Neither do they take account of the increasing numbers of people who record programmes on My Sky and watch them later on, or those who might be surfing the net or snoozing while the telly is on.
But more importantly from the advertiser’s perspective, they do not have the ability to tell whether anyone is actually watching their ads, let alone paying much attention to them.
Yet every day television and advertising executives pour over the previous night’s ratings as if they were the Holy Grail.
Little more than a lottery
For their own peace of mind they should acknowledge that the ratings game is little more than a lottery and back their own judgment when it comes to deciding what viewers like or dislike.
For me, the ultimate proof a programme or story has hooked in a large audience is the amount of feedback you get afterwards – be it in the form of emails, text messages, phone calls, letters or whatever.
But, curiously, this is rarely reflected in the “official” ratings.
It never failed to amuse me in my television days that stories which attracted a flood of correspondence often failed to rate, which suggested to me People Meters are about as useful as a crystal ball.
Geoff Lealand, the associate professor of screen and media studies at Waikato University, who has himself worked in television audience research in New Zealand and Britain, has similar misgivings about them.
“I argue ratings are essentially quantitative measurements of self-reported behaviour – for example, people pressing buttons, and thus subject to human error, inertia, inattention, etc.
“However, such thin information is continuously used and misused to make qualitative judgments about our responses to programming and advertising.
“In addition, People Meters cannot account for an educated use of the remote, most especially the mute button.”
Most serious flaw
Dr Lealand told NBR ONLINE the most serious flaw with the meters is that “presence in a room where a television set is on, which is all that they claim to record, will never be the same as the practice of watching television”.
“This was once again demonstrated in the argument over the audience for TVNZ7 last year where viewing figures were misused, deliberately or otherwise.”
He says the viewing panel of around1500 individuals is biased towards “older, settled nuclear” family groups and under-represents young viewers, especially students and renters as well as significant ethnic groups.
“All that AC Nielsen claim to measure, through people remembering to push buttons on the special remote, is “presence” in a room where a television set is on.
“All the rest is speculation, conjecture and guesswork.”
So how does Dr Lealand believe Seven Sharp and Campbell Live will fare given such a flawed system?
“If Seven Sharp is going after the same sort of young audience as John Campbell, as seems to be their intention, I think they may well be disadvantaged by the current ratings system, given the minimal representation of young, non-home-owning viewers in the People Meter panel.
“Like them, even though I am not of that demographic, I will continue watching Shortland Street at 7pm.”