What America Watches--and Why : Geography is often a key to a show's ratings, critics say

In the infancy of television, many people had their first magical glimpse of a broadcast in a neighbor's house. Others caught the spreading TV contagion from the set over the bar in the neighborhood tavern. But no matter where they watched it, people generally watched television together.

On Tuesday evenings in 1948, there was a sense that Americans who could find their way to one of the roughly 900,000 TV sets in the country were gathered together like a huge family to watch crackling transmissions of "The Milton Berle Show."

Such a sense of community is mostly gone in television today. It was fragmented when lower-priced TV sets flooded the market and new technologies revolutionized the broadcast industry. In 1948, a boxy, small-screen, black-and-white TV set cost as much as $400 (more than $1,700 in 1989 dollars); for $400 now you can buy a quality 20-inch, color monitor with stereo reception.

There are 90.4 million television households now--98% of American homes--many of them with two or three TV sets. Of those households, 62% have at least one VCR, and 56% receive cable television, which in some cases provides more than 40 additional viewing choices.

With so many sets and so many viewing options, what is America tuning in to now--and, more specifically, why? That was the question tossed to a clan of TV critics, gathered in Los Angeles for the television industry's annual summer press tour.

Among their insights about TV viewing habits in their respective markets: "Beauty and the Beast" has a huge following in Pittsburgh. New Yorkers flip channels a lot. Many people in Dallas don't like "Dallas." In Birmingham, Ala., viewers love Andy Griffith reruns. A disproportionate number of TV writers and producers hail from Buffalo, N.Y. Arsenio Hall goes over big in Kansas City.

"This is one of the greatest democracies going--television I'm talking about, not the United States," said television critic Mark Dawidziak of the Beacon Journal in Akron, Ohio. "Everybody has an opinion about television and everybody is going to give you that opinion through what they watch.

"Cable has diversified television to the extent that if you like sports, news, movies or music, there's an entire channel for you. The VCR has completed that democratic equation. Now, you not only have a lot more choices, but you don't have to watch a show when broadcasters tell you to watch it. You can watch it when you want to watch it."

The critics' comments suggested that when it comes to television, America is not a melting pot but rather a salad bowl in which everyone's viewing tastes and preferences are tossed together.

With the proliferation of cable channels and increases in local programming, the major networks no longer are unchallenged rulers of the TV airwaves. The networks are steadily losing their audience. A look at A.C. Nielson Co. figures reveals that the networks drew only 68% of the total television audience during prime time in the 1988-89 television season, compared to 92% 10 years ago.

Some critics say that the networks are missing their mark and that the failure rate for new shows is well over 80%. One reason, they suggest, is that most network shows are written and produced in either New York or Los Angeles and thus display a coastal attitude that viewers in other parts of the country cannot identify with.

"There's an old joke: What is America to a network executive? It's what he flies over while traveling from the East Coast to the West Coast," said Los Angeles Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg.

"All of television reflects a very white, middle-class mentality because those are the people who control television," Rosenberg said. "Everything made for commercial television is seen through the prism of its makers."

Said Robert Strauss of the New Jersey-based Asbury Park Press: "The networks still draw millions of viewers, so they must know something. But it still seems to be a vastly New York-Los Angeles world that we see on television. Because the shows are created mostly in New York and Los Angeles, all the references, the locales and the settings exist in those areas."

Philadelphia Tribune writer Larry Wexler said: "ABC is coming out with Jackie Mason's new show this fall. It's called 'Chicken Soup.' I don't think it's going to do real well. It's about a Jewish guy and a Gentile woman, and Mason's type of humor is urban, more sophisticated. It might do fine in New York or Philadelphia, but I don't think it will play in Dubuque, Iowa, and smaller towns like that. They just won't get it."

Critics say that one reason ABC's hausfrau "Roseanne" mopped up in the ratings last season is because her character is a departure from the high society of New York or the laid-back beaches of Los Angeles. Tom Feran, TV critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, said: " 'Roseanne' was bigger, faster in Cleveland than most anywhere in the country. I remember the first time I saw the pilot I thought, 'This looks like a documentary.' It has a no-nonsense kind of sensibility. Cleveland is a town that works, that produces. There's a real appreciation for her."

Of course not all network shows are set in New York or Los Angeles. "Roseanne" fires her one-liners from Lanford, Ill. The backdrop for NBC's "Cheers" is a bar in Boston. In CBS' "Murder, She Wrote," Angela Lansbury--when not free-lancing on the road--solves mysteries from her home in Cabot Cove, Me. And the titles of CBS' "Dallas" and "Miami Vice" reveal still other locales.

"A lot of shows are set in (Chicago), but that doesn't seem to have any impact on anyone because none of them are really shot there," said TV writer Joel Brown of the Daily Southtown Economist in Chicago. "They might do a few things behind the titles. You see Bronson Pinchot and Mark Linn Baker from 'Perfect Strangers' go out and run by the Wrigley Building, and down by the Chicago River, and maybe to the fountain in Grand Park, then we don't see them in the city again until they need some winter establishing shots. The rest of the show is standard, three-camera sitcom stuff."

Oftentimes, using "outside" cities as settings backfires. The exaggerated stereotypes that television creates can alienate viewers in different television markets, especially when the story takes place in that market. The larger the area that the show mimics, the greater the potential audience loss.

CBS' "Heartland," which finished 43rd nationally out of 69 shows in the Nielson ratings last week, is a sitcom about a three-generation family on a Nebraska farm. Barry Garron, television critic for the Kansas City Star in Missouri, said that the show, which stars Brian Keith, "may have been more rejected in the Midwest than elsewhere because people in the Midwest realize how stupid a portrayal of Midwestern life that is."

"The show 'Heartland,' which is supposed to be about a farm family in the Midwest, clearly shows no indication of life in the Midwest," said Ron Weiskind, television and radio critic for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. "In fact, I don't know of anybody who lives like that or talks like that or acts like that. It's just writers writing jokes that have no relation to real life. And that's one reason shows like that don't last very long."

At least one element of life in the American heartland does help draw viewers to the television set--the weather. In regions outside the West Coast and the Deep South, the significance of TV to potential viewers increases as the temperature falls.

"People like to do things outdoors, but in the wintertime they become prisoners," Feran of the Cleveland Plain Dealer said. "For a large portion of the year it gets dark early, it gets cold and TV becomes a major activity. That's why 'Lonesome Dove,' which was big everywhere, was especially big in Cleveland. It came on about the first week of February, and it was just a bitterly cold week. 'Lonesome Dove' was like a little vacation. You could go home and it was on every night. It was escapist, warm-weather fare."

"In Miami it's warm all year around, so you don't have the blitz in ratings in the winter you have in the rest of the country," TV critic Steve Sonsky of the Miami Herald said. "In spring, HUT levels (homes using television) drop off considerably in other markets because people start going outdoors again. They're more stable in Miami. You don't have that precipitous drop-off. If people watch less TV in the winter, it's not because of the weather, it's because there's nothing good to watch."

In some markets, matters are complicated by network promotional spots. "We're peculiar because we're in the Mountain time zone, which is sort of a stepchild time zone," said Joanne Ostrow, TV critic of the Denver Post. "When they advertise their upcoming shows, the networks will tell you that it comes on at '10 o'clock Central and 8 o'clock Pacific,' but they won't tell you what the Mountain time zone is.

"There are advantages. You don't have to stay up all night to watch David Letterman, who comes on at 11:30 p.m. A disadvantage is, if you have young children, our prime time starts at 7 p.m. So the 9 p.m. shows, which the networks save for more more violent programming, are on at 8 p.m. in Denver--when kids are still up."

Of the critics polled, none expressed concern with the content of network programming. Several said that special-interest advocates who receive media attention--such as Terry Rakolta, who made waves among Fox Broadcasting's advertisers with her letter-writing campaign objecting to the raw sitcom "Married . . . With Children"--have narrow agendas and do not represent most viewers.

"In the old days, if there was anything risque, I would hear about it very quickly," said Alan Pergament, TV critic for the Buffalo News in New York. "Buffalo is a conservative town, but nobody in Buffalo is concerned with those issues. From my judgment, special-interest groups have way too much power. I don't think they accurately represent Buffalo or any other market."

Among the networks, CBS and ABC are trailing NBC in the ratings nationally. But network rankings often differ in local markets, depending on the popularity of the networks' affiliates in each area.

"My market, and any market, is controlled largely by the strength of its affiliate stations," said Art Chapman, television critic for the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram in Texas. "While ABC may be perched very dangerously between second and third place, ABC remains the No. 1 network in my market because the ABC affiliate in my market is the strongest of the affiliates. That station has the best equipment and management."

One of the most visible draws of a network affiliate is the quality of its local newscasts. There was a feeling among many of the critics interviewed that a viewer who tunes in to a local evening news program is more likely to stick around and see what that network has to offer in prime time.

"A lot of the blue-collar values in our market show up on the local newscasts," Dawidziak of the Beacon Journal in Ohio said. "There's a loyalty to the reporters who have been around for a while and stay around. Unstable stations where faces come and go a lot don't do well in the ratings, but stations that have someone reporting who's been around for 16, 17 years, they take those people into their hearts and are loyal to them."

Consequently, a strong newscast from an independent station can take a bite out of the ratings of a larger network affiliate. "The obvious thing in the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale market is the large influence of Latins," Sonsky of the Miami Herald said. "There are two Spanish-language stations on the air in Miami that have a big influence on local news and ratings. A large portion of the older Latin Americans watch the Spanish news, which makes a big dent in the local market. The 6 p.m. news on Channel 23, one of the Spanish stations, has a larger audience share than any of the four English-speaking news shows at that time."

"One sad trend in Portland," said Erik Bergman, associate editor of the Portland-based magazine TV Host, "is that news staffs are getting cut down. News is getting too costly. A major amount of people in our market turn to TV for news, and that can't be overestimated. Beyond entertainment, people want to know what happened last night or this morning. It's a shame news is being cut back. It seems that the only visionary is Ted Turner with CNN, which has expanded and is linking the whole world."

As cable television and VCRs continue to infiltrate network programming, TV critics say that the networks' lowest-common-denominator audience will dry up. One media writer said that the networks--using the abundance of demographic information available to them-- should "de-massify" their audiences. The writer said the technology is available to simultaneously broadcast different programs developed for specific parts of the country, in the same way that magazines such as TV Guide publish listings and editorial content to match separate TV markets and time zones.

Some of the critics feel that the networks have failed to react after being caught in a storm of change. "Most viewers are going to tell you they don't notice a difference in TV from 10 years ago," said Ann McGuire, editor of New York-based magazine Total Television. "It's the same. It's the same stuff. (The major networks) really haven't gone out of their way to do anything new. Look at the technology around, the way everything is coming into the home, computers and things. And TV has stayed the same. They brought back 'Columbo.' They're bringing back 'Kojak.' Is there a shortage of ideas here?"

A Swing Across the Nation During 'Sweeps'

Here's a look at 10 geographical diverse Nielsen TV markets. The Ratings are for April 27--May 24, the latest "sweeps," a period when viewership is measured in every market. There are 210 Nielsen markets (areas served by the same major TV stations). They are ranked according to number of households; the rankings of those cited here appear in front of the area's name.

5: SAN FRANCISCO-OAKLAND Total Households: 2,243,600 Total TV Households: 2,166,970 % of U.S. TV households: 2.399 % Cable Penetration: 59.6 Cable TV Households: 1,291,150 % VCR Penetration: 75.1 % Pay Cable Penetration: 28.4 Top 10 1. Roseanne 2. I Know My First Name Is Steven, Pt. 2 3. 60 Minutes 4. Murder, She Wrote 5. Cheers 6. L.A. Law 7. The Cosby Show 7. ABC Sunday Movie 9. A Different World 10. Golden Girls 10. War & Remembrance, Pt. 12

27: PORTLAND, OR Total Households: 823,200 Total TV Households: 799,260 % of U.S. TV households: .885 % Cable Penetration: 55.1 Cable TV Households: 440,220 % VCR Penetration: 67.3 % Pay Cable Penetration: 28.3 Top 10 1. Roseanne 2. 60 Minutes 3. The Cosby Show 4. ABC Sunday Movie 5. Murder, She Wrote 6. A Different World 7. Golden Girls 8. Cheers 9. L.A. Law 10. Unsolved Mysteries

19: DENVER Total Households: 1,039,100 Total TV Households: 1,018,110 % of U.S. TV households: 1.127 % Cable Penetration: 51.2 Cable TV Households: 520,870 % VCR Penetration: 66.7 % Pay Cable Penetration: 28.9 Top 10 1. I Know My First Name Is Steven, Pt. 2 2. Roseanne 3. Family Ties 4. ABC Sunday Movie 5. NBC Monday Night Movie 6. L.A. Law 7. Cheers 8. The Cosby Show 9. War & Remembrance, Pt. 12 10. Have Faith

3: CHICAGO Total Households: 3,153,500 Total TV Households: 3,106,690 % of U.S. TV households: 3.440 % Cable Penetration: 43.3 Cable TV Households: 1,347,600 % VCR Penetration: 73.2 % Pay Cable Penetration: 28.7 Top 10 Rank Program 1. Roseanne 2. I Know My First Name Is Steven, Pt. 2 3. L.A. Law 4. ABC Sunday Movie 5. Cheers 5. A Different World 7. Wonder Years 8. Who's The Boss? 9. The Cosby Show 9. Have Faith

1: NEW YORK Total Households: 7,054,900 Total TV Households: 6,921,240 % of U.S. TV households: 7.663 % Cable Penetration: 49.8 Cable TV Households: 3,449,530 % VCR Penetration: 70.9 % Pay Cable Penetration: 33.3 Top 10 1. Roseanne 2. I Know My First Name Is Steven, Pt. 2 3. Jackee 4. A Different World 5. Family Ties 6. L.A. Law 7. The Cosby Show 8. Cheers 9. Who's The Boss? 10. Golden Girls

2: LOS ANGELES Total Households: 4,907,400 Total TV Households: 4,800,200 % of U.S. TV households: 5.315 % Cable Penetration: 49.1% Cable TV Households: 2,356,900 % VCR Penetration: 72.4% % Pay Cable Penetration: 30.4% Top 10 1. Roseanne 2. Family Ties 3. I Know My First Name Is Steven, Pt. 2 4. The Cosby Show 5. ABC Sunday Movie 6. Cheers 7. Golden Girls 8. Wonder Years 9. Jackee 10. 60 Minutes

25: SAN DIEGO Total Households: 860,200 Total TV Households: 838,270 % of U.S. TV households: .928 % Cable Penetration: 77.0% Cable TV Households: 645,470 % VCR Penetration: 70.2% % Pay Cable Penetration: 33.9% Top 10 1. 60 Minutes 2. ABC Sunday Movie 3. I Know My First Name Is Steven, Pt. 2 4. Murder, She Wrote 5. Cheers 6. Roseanne 7. War & Remembrance, Pt. 12 8. The Cosby Show 9. War & Remembrance, Pt. 10 10. War & Remembrance, Pt. 11

9: DALLAS-FT. WORTH Total Households: 1,692,800 Total TV Households: 1,664,820 % of U.S. TV households: 1.843 % Cable Penetration: 44.1 Cable TV Households: 734,090 % VCR Penetration: 71.0 % Pay Cable Penetration: 28.8 Top 10 1. ABC Sunday Movie 2. Roseanne 3. I Know My First Name Is Steven, Pt. 2 4. Who's The Boss? 5. Wonder Years 6. A Different World 7. The Cosby Show 8. Knots Landing 9. Growing Pains 10. CBS News Special

16: MIAMI-FT.LAUDERDALE Total Households: 1,270,200 Total TV Households: 1,249,430 % of U.S. TV households: 1.383 % Cable Penetration: 57.6 Cable TV Households: 719,920 % VCR Penetration: 59.2 % Pay Cable Penetration: 34.0 Top 10 Primetime Programs May 1989 Sweep Period (4/27/89--5/24/89) Rank Program 1. ABC Sunday Movie 2. I Know My First Name Is Steven, Pt. 2 3. Golden Girls 4. Roseanne 5. Hunter 6. Jackee 6. L.A. Law 6. Empty Nest 9. Matlock 10. The Cosby Show 10. War & Remembrance, Pt. 11

29: CINCINNATI Total Households: 730,600 Total TV Households: 721,140 % of U.S. TV households:.798 % Cable Penetration: 51.8 Cable TV Households: 373,610 % VCR Penetration: 65.0 % Pay Cable Penetration: 31.1 Top 10 1. I Know My First Name Is Steven, Pt. 2 2. ABC Sunday Movie 3. Roseanne 4. The Cosby Show 5. Golden Girls 6. A Different World 7. Cheers 8. Empty Nest 9. Cheers Special 10. Jackee SOURCE: The A.C. Nielsen Co. Total Household & Total TV Household estimates based on January 1989. Cable, Pay Cable and VCR Penetration estimates based on May 1989.

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