What entertainment reporters could learn from baseball geeks
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Last week I ate at a restaurant that had two TVs playing, side-by-side: one showing ESPN, the other showing ESPN2. Both were running features on New York Knicks sensation Jeremy Lin. Neither, in the 20 combined minutes they spent on Lin, offered anything of real use or insight; instead they largely focused on Lin as a human-interest story, not as an athlete. By contrast, last week the MLB Network series Clubhouse Confidential spent about 10 minutes of one episode discussing Washington Nationals up-and-comer Bryce Harper: crunching his minor-league numbers; analyzing the historical data on teenage baseball players; and considering both the Nationals’ playoff chances and potential revenue if the franchise were to choose to bring up Harper this season, weighed against how much sooner they’ll have to lay out big money to hold onto Harper in future years. Clubhouse Confidential took into account the business of baseball, the history of past big moves, and the outlook for this one player, all in ways that were genuinely illuminating. And without ever once using the words “I feel,” or “team chemistry,” or “Tebow.”
I love Clubhouse Confidential. It’s my favorite sports-related show on TV (aside from, y’know, actual games), and though I’m drawn to it as a baseball fan, I’d like to think that I’d watch a similar program about basketball, football, hockey, or cricket. I’m never going to run a baseball team—heck, I don’t even play fantasy sports—but I find the games more enjoyable when I understand even a little about the hidden ways in which they work.
Ditto the entertainment industry. During the ’90s heyday of Premiere and Entertainment Weekly, I used to devour all their coverage of agents, producers, and studio heads, who had more to do with what played at the multiplex than any writer or director. Sure, the money a movie makes has nothing to do with whether it’s any good, but financial matters aren’t completely irrelevant to an understanding of art. Does Christopher Nolan get to make Inception if The Dark Knight doesn’t make a billion dollars? Are the creative choices made by, say, Martin Scorsese throughout his career driven in part by how successful (or not) his previous films have been? These are questions worth weighing, because the tension between art and commerce has an effect on what we see and hear—sometimes detrimentally, though not always.
The problem is that while the people who cover the business of showbiz have become smarter than they were a decade ago about which numbers to cite, the analysis still tends to be too shallow to be meaningful. When it comes to a movie’s box-office, entertainment reporters know now to consider the foreign take as well as the domestic, and when it comes to television, they know that the number of viewers inside the advertisers’ coveted 18-to-49-year-old “demo” matters more than total viewers. But there are numbers within numbers that we either barely see or aren’t being considered fully enough. In baseball stat-nerd terms, we’ve finally learned to value OPS and WAR over batting average and won-loss records, but we’re not doing enough to fully understand those new numbers.
Personally, I’ve long wished that the focus on box-office totals were more in terms of attendance rather than dollars, if only because that would help us gauge a movie’s performance historically, in comparison with films that cost a buck to see, or a quarter. (It would also help us compare the number of people who saw a movie versus how many bought any given album or book, or how many watched the highest-rated television shows, all of which would tell us how popular a movie really is.) But if money must be the measure, then more reporters should be cognizant of a movie’s budget, its marketing costs, its distribution partnerships, its cable sales, its home-video revenue, etc. These factors aren’t completely ignored, but for the most part, as it stands now, movies get declared hits or flops based on a couple of weeks’ worth of receipts, and then are largely forgotten by the media at large, even though some movies make a lot of their money before opening weekend (thanks to foreign sales and the like), or long afterward (thanks to home video and cable).
Granted, entertainment reporters are at a disadvantage when it comes to movies, in that the studios control the release of a lot those numbers, and they have reason to withhold or fudge the information. The big showbiz conglomerates need to spin the numbers favorably in public to keep stockholders happy, while privately they make movies look unprofitable in order to keep creators from demanding too big of a share of the take. We in the media often get caught in the crossfire of those competing aims, treated as a propaganda arm rather than as legitimate journalists.
In theory, television should be easier to cover. Budgets for TV episodes vary, but not as widely as they do for feature films, and Nielsen provides reasonably detailed data about number of viewers, percentages of viewers, types of viewers, and even when people view. And yet the bulk of the analysis of the TV business zeroes in on one piece of data: how many people between the ages of 18 and 49 watched a show on the night that it aired. Even the respected site TV By The Numbers, which does a fine job of compiling and relaying the daily Nielsen data, often comes up short in terms of processing that data and making predictions. More than once over the past couple of years, TVBTN has confidently assumed cancellation for shows that ended up getting renewed. Last year, TV By The Numbers insisted that the CBS legal drama The Good Wife—one of the few remaining series that regularly draws more than 10 million viewers an episode—wasn’t a sure bet for renewal, because the vast majority of its fans are over 50. Yet CBS not only renewed The Good Wife, the network moved the show to a prime Sunday-night timeslot, where it’s continued to be one of the most-watched shows on television (and has continued to have its ratings described as “woeful” by TVBTN).
I don’t mean to single out TV By The Numbers, which is far from the only site to pontificate about a show’s success or failure based largely on one data point. Besides, it’s not like they’re wrong about the importance of the 18-49 number to advertisers. “The demo” absolutely drives the market, and has an impact on the decisions made by TV executives. But it’s not the only information under consideration. There are plenty of questions being asked and answered in network boardrooms: How much does a show cost to produce? Who owns it? Does it play well overseas? How does it hold up in repeats? How much money do its viewers make? How educated are its viewers? What guarantees were made to advertisers? After Fox canned Lone Star last season, I was at an event where the show’s creator, Kyle Killen, spoke, and he explained that because of Fox’s promises to Lone Star’s sponsors, it turned out to be less expensive for the network to absorb the cost of the episodes already produced than to air what it had in the vault. That’s a piece of information I hadn’t seen reported much in all the coverage of Lone Star’s swift cancellation.
Just as sports agents come to arbitration meetings with a stack of statistics to prove that their clients deserve to make more money, so TV producers try to make the strongest case they can to the network, and so network advertising departments prepare charts and graphs to try and convince sponsors to pony up. Or to put it another way: No matter how old The Good Wife’s 10 million viewers are, any network that can’t make money off of that many eyeballs isn’t trying hard enough.
And maybe that’s the case. Maybe television executives really are making terrible economic decisions every day, based on a narrow view of their product’s potential. Maybe movie studios are missing out on audiences they could be serving if they hired the right stars and worked in the right genres. If so, shouldn’t the entertainment media do more digging to expose those weaknesses? Some of the better TV reporters do raise these questions, during network conference calls or at the twice-yearly gatherings of TV critics, producers and executives. But there’s always room for more of this kind of grilling. As Clubhouse Confidential proves five days a week, the business of baseball has changed over the past decade in large part thanks to a revolution led by fans and a few obsessive sportswriters. It was the analytics community that was out there suggesting that underfunded teams could approximate the value of a superstar by signing light-hitting journeymen skilled at getting on base and scoring runs; such that now even big-market teams are making sure they have statisticians on staff as well as scouts. Why couldn’t the sites that claim to analyze box-office and ratings do more of that kind of higher math? (See also: cable news with its incomplete assessments of economic data. But that’s a whole other rant.)
Quality is always going to be a hard sell. Fans who gripe that their favorite show was cancelled too quickly or that their favorite movie was poorly marketed have to realize that sometimes the public just decides to reject our darlings. (Case in point: Arrested Development, which got three seasons from Fox, often in prime time-slots. TV viewers just didn’t like it enough.) But in 2012 especially, with DVRs and Hulu and Netflix and iTunes and Amazon and cable TV “narrowcasting,” there are a number of ways pieces of entertainment can make money, such that a network’s decision to cancel or renew a show—or a studio’s decision to dump a movie—deserves more scrutiny than it receives right now. Better reporting on this kind of data, utilizing inside sources and detailed number-crunching, would at the least help those of us who love movies and television better understand essential aspects of the business. And at best, who knows? It might help change the business itself.