Periodically, people write or call to say they simply don't believe the accuracy of ratings issued by Nielsen Media Research. "No one has ever asked me " seems to be the prevailing reaction from this group, often the kind of folks equally convinced that black government helicopters are circling their house.
It's hard to explain to such people that Nielsen uses a small sample to estimate viewing habits of the U.S. population, in the same way public-opinion polls survey a thousand people to gauge national attitudes toward everything from global warming to day care.
As for the majority who actually put any stock in Nielsen data, recent headlines lead to one inescapable conclusion: Young people, those under age 35, are messing up television for the rest of us.
Just listen to network TV executives, who keep returning to the same mantra, which in essence says, "Really, we don't want to put on these awful shows. Sometimes we don't even like them ourselves. It's the young people. They're making us do it."
Executives then recite Nielsen figures to buttress this explanation. Those elusive viewers in the 18-to-34 age range are watching unscripted programs--or what one cable executive recently called "choreographed reality"--in big enough numbers, relative to the production costs, to make the genre extremely viable.
Consider "Big Brother 2," which took "Jerry Springer" rejects and locked them in a house together. The show won its time period last week among women 18 to 34, while many of their male counterparts tuned in another cultural scourge in the eyes of many TV critics--NBC's "Spy TV."
Descriptions affixed to the younger crowd by network executives in the last few weeks, as they have sought to justify their programming to those critics, have been less than flattering. Indeed, the image they paint is of a creature with the attention span of a gnat and the fidelity of certain politicians.
"The young audience tends to come to [something], look at it, use it and move on," Turner Broadcasting Chairman Jamie Kellner, whose empire includes the WB network as well as various cable channels, told reporters.
"What matters is not what I like," Fox Entertainment Television Group Chairman Sandy Grushow stated regarding choreographed reality, which Fox has helped popularize with programs such as "Temptation Island," calling the genre "a new way, and an easier way, to speak to that [younger] audience."
"Temptation Island" clearly spoke to many young women, despite ample evidence the contestants were mostly aspiring actors and actresses posturing for camera time. This included a couple removed during production for running afoul of show rules because they have a child together--an easy-to-discover fact for anyone who truly wanted to find out. (Given a choice last week between having been incompetent in conducting background checks or deceptive as to what he knew, executive producer Chris Cowan said, "I'm maintaining that we knew absolutely nothing before that show started," thus opting for the former.)
Millions of women ate it up regardless, willingly suspending disbelief in the way they once hung on each beat of scripted soap operas like "Melrose Place" or "Beverly Hills, 90210."
"There's been a slight generational change in what the under-35 audience expects," NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker hypothesized, alluding to a jaded generation raised on MTV, ESPN's X Games, and blanket coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial and Monica Lewinsky.
According to Zucker, these viewers are "telling us something" with their choices, and networks mindful of the future dare not turn a deaf ear.
Unfortunately, I have graduated out of the 18-to-34 demographic myself, which explains why those baggy jeans look silly on me; however, I do know people who fall within that age range, and with all due respect to these executives, I have not found them to uniformly be the flaky, no-taste clods the people watching some of these shows would seem to be.
Indeed, after a column in which Dick Van Dyke vented about the shabby way the media transformed his series, "Diagnosis Murder," into a prime-time punch line because of its geriatric demographics, several e-mails came in from people claiming to be in the 12-to-34 age group saying they were fans.
The ratings, they insisted, don't speak for them. There really are younger people who appreciate sharply written dramas and even old-fashioned fare with traditional values. There are also plenty of young people laughing at clever comedy, from "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" to "Late Night With Conan O'Brien."
Notably, O'Brien--who attended Harvard at the same time as Zucker--dismissed the notion of chasing a particular demographic during his own question-and-answer session last week.
"I'm a believer that you just have to go out and do the show that's inside you, do the best show you can do and see what you get," he said. "You can't be funny ... and be original and have an authentic voice if you're backstage thinking, 'I'm going to go out there and really knock 18-to-22-[year-old] beer-drinking yuppies, I'm going to really make them laugh,' because that's not how it works."
In fact, the ratings also bear out that the MTV set remains a diverse lot, so much so that even programs performing well within younger demographics attract a relatively small percentage of that audience, largely because it's so hard to get them to sit still for anything.
Too lazy to go searching for members of Gen-Whatever-Letter-They're-Using-This Week, I decided to call upon my niece, Erica Diem, who is 16 but precocious.
A junior at Canyon High in Anaheim Hills, Erica has viewing habits that are not those of a typical stereotyped teenager. For starters, she has never watched "Survivor" or "Temptation Island" and doesn't understand why anyone would.
"There's no real point, because there's no story, no plot," she said. "Whatever the reason they're there, it's pointless. I like things with characters you can actually like."
Then again, Erica also spurns most teen-centric dramas, preferring such shows as "The Practice" and "ER." As for media coverage of youth-oriented shows, she said, "It totally makes us look like we're buying into it. Some of us are, but a lot of people think it's ridiculous. I mean, James Van Der Beek [of "Dawson's Creek"] is like 26. What's up with that?
"It's like a lot of 40-year-old people sitting behind desks saying, 'This is what teenagers want,' and they don't have a clue."
Of course, if prevailing trends continue, Erica, other discriminating teens and anyone born before the Cuban missile crisis would appear to be out of luck; still, there are those able to laugh at Hollywood's youth obsession.
"Young people don't make me feel old," mused Janie Mudrick, a talent manager at the Braverman/Bloom Co., who represents a number of young actors. "They help me feel smarter."
To be fair, many in the younger age bracket are smarter than they are given credit for being. It's just the networks, hellbent to reach them, who often wind up looking dumb and dumber.
Brian Lowry's column appears on Wednesdays. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.