This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.
I have a few friends who have shows on the air right now -- shows that have premiered or are about to premiere this season. All of them are handling it better than I usually do.
The last time I had a TV show on the air -- this was back during the Grover Cleveland administration -- I was a nervous wreck. We had a difficult Monday night time slot, and the night of our premiere, I imagined, thousands of miles away, the following scenario.
INT. OVAL OFFICE -- DAY
The president is at his desk, surrounded by advisors. PRESIDENT
When am I scheduled to deliver my address to the nation outlining our progress in the War on Terror?
We're thinking next Tuesday night, sir?
But doesn't that guy's new sit-com premiere on Monday night?
I believe it might, sir.
So then how, exactly, am I going to disrupt things by pre-empting prime-time programming on at least one of the coasts, resulting in a lopsided premiere and an unreliable set of initial ratings, thus crushing whatever momentum his show might have?
Ummmm. Sir? I'm sorry. Is that one of our goals?
Of course it is. All that guy talks about is moving to France? Not on my watch. Later, in a Hollywood soundstage:
The cast and crew are lounging around the set, drinking beer and eating pizza. We've all gathered together to watch the premiere episode.
I'm holding a beer and staring out into the distance, imagining the scene in the Oval Office. VOICE (V.O.)
Why does the president hate me? Our casting director is standing next to me. CASTING DIRECTOR
Excuse me? I snap out of it. ME
I'm sorry. I was just daydreaming. Is the show about to start?
It did start. It's over. I look around, and suddenly, the sound comes up. Laughter. The theme music. And applause as the credits roll. ME
Great. So now all I have to do is wait for the ratings.
You don't really know how to enjoy a moment, do you?
I've always found -enjoying the moment' to be some kind of trick.
You're sort of a pessimist, aren't you?
Give me a break. Is it quote pessimistic unquote to prepare yourself for bad news? Bad news that you know is going to come?
Will you excuse me? I'm going to get another beer. This one is half-empty. I cross away.
It is 5am. In one hour, the previous night's Nielsen Overnight Ratings are available.
The "overnights" are the preliminary numbers culled from the major urban television markets in the United States. They tell you how well your show did in the cities. Later in the day, by noon or so, those numbers will be adjusted to include the rural and suburban areas. Those are the "nationals," upon which are based things like advertising rates, weekly rankings, and my salary.
The overnights and the nationals can differ widely. A show that appeals to a primarily urban audience might experience a two or three point drop when the nationals come out; likewise, a family-oriented show might pick up an extra point or two later in the day when the suburban markets are counted.
In fact, there's no real point to the overnights at all, except that when you have a show on the night before, and you're lying awake at 5am, you'll take any information you can get.
And also: the first number sets a tone. If it's high, your day is made, a bullet is dodged. If it's low, you wait glumly for the network to send you a fruit basket, to express unconditional support, and then, a few weeks later, to yank you from the schedule. It doesn't really matter that this is just a snapshot. That the number may grow over time, as people find the series and become involved with the characters. That history is paved with the gold networks have earned by sticking with a show they liked despite a lackluster premiere. That the subsequent episodes are funnier, smarter, and more attractive. That this one has to work because you're not sure you've got another one in you.
At 6am I begin calling the special network ratings phone line. Each network assigns some low-ranking serf to wake up early, collect the prime-time ratings for the previous night, and then record them onto a telephone information line, in a voice as chipper as possible.
I call the number. The recording still has the numbers from the day before, which means the new numbers aren't available, or, worse, that the kid has overslept.
I call every five minutes until I hear a new recording. RECORDED VOICE (V.O.)
The Nielsen Overnight Ratings for the 33 metered markets, for Monday, are as follows: at eight o'clock -- And I hang up, quickly. This is a fruitless exercise. The numbers that matter, the nationals, won't come out until lunch. The only reason to call in for the overnights is to have something to worry about for the next seven hours.
Whatever. I call the number again. RECORDED VOICE (V.O.)
The Nielsen Overnight Ratings for the 33 metered markets, for Monday, are as follows: at eight o'clock -- And I hang up again. I do this six times, every Tuesday morning, for as long as our show lasts, which is about one week after getting a giant basket of muffins from the network with an upbeat, supportive note attached.
So to my friends who have shows on the air right now, I can only offer this advice: don't eat the muffins. And don't read the note. Just... pack your things.
That's it for this week. Next week, we'll hang a lantern on things. For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.