Basic Math

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This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.
My dog has a rubber toy that has a hollow core, and what you’re supposed to do is fill the core with peanut butter or cheese or cubes of something delicious, and watch as she nudges it and bounces it and tries to get at the treat inside, but in general just stares at it with a totally baffled expression which is the exact same expression most people in the television business have when they’re trying to figure out what the ratings mean.
We weren’t the math whizzes in school. None of us – not the executives or the writers or any of the production crew.  The math whizzes are all in Silicon Valley or Redmond or somewhere like that earning billions and making iPhone apps.  We’re here in Burbank trying to figure out the act break.
But when the ratings come in, suddenly we’re all experts.  And like most experts, what we’re really doing is bluffing.
These are very good numbers, someone told me last week the day after my show premiered.  Very good numbers.  You’re up in the 25 to 54 range, you hold your lead in, and year over year you’re showing growth for the network.
Within the hour, someone else called from another research department.  You had a soft debut, they said.  You did okay.  You performed.  But with summer HUT levels down you did in the high middle range of okay performance.
HUT levels, by the way, means Households Using Television, which is a phrase that has always made me laugh.  Households Using Television?  What are they using it for?  To keep from having meaningful interaction?  To anesthetize themselves?
But by lunchtime, there were more numbers out – the fast overnights had been replaced and readjusted with more complete national numbers.  Since the morning numbers just cover the major urban markets – what the colorful phrasemakers who invented HUT levels call DMAs – the afternoon numbers include the rest of the country.
You did great with 18 to 39s, someone said.
Is that good? I asked.
Not really.  The network is going for 25 to 54s.
And you held your lead in.
I thought we lost one percent of our lead in, I said.
You did.  But that’s statistically meaningless.
And then later, a series of congratulatory calls from people who had read in the trades that we got 2.5 million views, followed by an email from a friend of mine who reminded me that at least one million of those 2.5 million viewers were the wrong kind of viewer.  Too old maybe.  Or too young.  Or too rich.  Or too poor.  It’s hard to really understand, especially for a writer who has been known to have a hard time making change how, exactly, they’re measuring the audience and who, exactly, they want to be tuning in.  By the end of the day I was either looking down the barrel of inevitable cancellation or riding high on the next big hit.
I wish, in other words, I hadn’t slept through high school statistics.  Because when the studio sends the research report out the next day, I stare at it like my dog, and sniff at it, and bat it around a bit.  The only difference is, she knows there’s a treat in there somewhere.
I don’t.
And that’s it for this week.  Next week, we’ll live Tweet.  For KCRW, this is Rob Long.



Rob Long