How four students offered me an ethical dilemma

What I should have done was offer them ten thousand dollars each

If I had ethics, this would be an "ethical dilemma".

Wait a minute. I think I started this in the wrong place. Let me back up a bit.

The most important number in the American television business - the number from which flow all the other juicier numbers, like salary and fees and general compensation - is the rating a television series garners. How many people watch it, and especially which specific demographic group those people belong to, is the most important metric in the entertainment business.

My first job as a television writer was on Cheers, the most popular television comedy of the time - some say of all time - and we routinely captured the attention of thirty million people each week. Cheers was a ratings juggernaut, and it was a wonderful - and terribly unrealistic - way to begin one's career, sauntering into the office on a Friday morning (our show was broadcast on Thursday evenings) and glancing casually up at the dry-erase board to see what number the production assistant had scrawled there.

It was staggering large, because in a four-channel universe, with no Twitter or Facebook or internet-connected DVRs, what other choices did a viewer have? I mean, what else were Americans going to do in the evenings? Read a book? Talk to their families? Not likely.

But as the business became more competitive - and as the numbers got smaller, even for the hits - everybody got a lot more tense. Even on a popular show these days, nobody is sauntering into the office the day after a broadcast. Instead, they're logging into the ratings service website early in the morning - the preliminary numbers are available by 5 or 6am, California time - and praying for a couple of million viewers. Even a million would be nice, especially if they're the right kind of million.

Meaning, if they're the young kind. Advertisers prefer to pay for younger viewers. They're not looking for kids, of course, because as we all know, kids are mostly broke. But they don't like old folks either, because old folks already know exactly what kind of toothpaste they're going to buy, or which credit card company they prefer, or whether they're a Coke or a Pepsi kind of person. When you reach a certain age, you just stop experimenting with a whole range of brand preferences, and no matter how much a company spends on slick advertising, you're not going to switch.

Younger folks, though, around 25 to about 40 or so, are persuadable. They don't know yet, exactly, if they aspire to a BMW or an Audi. Or if they're iPhoners or Samsung Galaxiers. Those are 15 crucial years for brand loyalties to take root, so if you're an advertiser, you'll pay a lot to reach those viewers. And if you've got a television show on the air, you want to get as many eyeballs of that age as you can trained in your direction.

As it happens, I do have a television show on the air. And as it happens, through a series of complicated events, I found myself recently making the acquaintance of four young men who share a house in a university town.

I'm being deliberately opaque here. You'll understand why in a moment.

We have a mutual friend, these fellows and I, and one day I was in this university town on a speaking engagement, and the guys and I got to chatting, and it came up that the guys had been approached by the largest audience measurement company in the world to see if they'd be willing to have a "ratings box" attached to their television to monitor their viewing habits. Audience measurement companies get their data this way. They identify key representative audience members across the country, attach meters to their televisions, and keep track of what they watch and when. The result: national television ratings.

The other result: me, up early every morning after my show airs, logging into the ratings service website with prayerful concentration. A further result: if the number is high enough, a whole lot of money in my pocket.

In other words, I had just met four young men in the 25-40 demographic who were about to determine the national television ratings for a key demographic group. Their specific viewing habits were about to be extrapolated and treated as representative of their cohort as a whole.

"If you guys promise to watch my show," I said, "I will pay you each $10,000."

Actually, I didn't say that. I thought about saying that. I framed the sentence in my head. But I didn't say it. Somewhere in my dim memory, I vaguely recall signing a paper promising not to do that very thing, swearing some kind of contractual oath not to game the system, were I unexpectedly presented with the opportunity to do just that. And now, here I was, facing some very alluring temptation.

An "ethical dilemma" is what I'd call it. That is, if I had ethics. I think I'll leave the story here, and let you decide for yourself which course I took.


Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rcbl

Published: August 24, 2013 04:00 AM


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