An Actress's Thoughts

For Heaven’s Sake, Look at the Ratings!

For Heaven’s Sake, Look at the Ratings!

UM HIMMELS WILLEN (For Heaven’s Sake, a series on ARD, one of Germany’s public-service broadcasters) was Germany’s most successful TV series in 2013, just like in the year before. On average 6.6 Mio. people watched each episode, in 2012 it were 7.1 Mio. Most successful series is defined by the extrapolated supposedly highest mean TV audience numbers.
Actually my plan was to analyse the complete series of 156 episodes in 12 seasons, behind the camera (6-sections-check) and in front of it (main and supporting casts), but unfortunately the data that is publically available is rather incomplete. So instead let’s ponder on TV ratings instead. They exist, but they should not be taken too seriously.

What do we need these ratings for? Do they help us choose a film to watch, or do they help the broadcasters to assemble their programmes? Does a show get better or worse through (the knowledge of) ratings? Does the future of a series depend on it? Or are they a measure for the popularity of a show, the people in it or the makers? Are they for checking the effects of PR campaings? Are they fundamental for selling air time for advertising? Are they needed to distribution the television licence fees? Are good ratings a matter of prestige for broadcasting companies and heads of programming? And are they correct numbers?
How do ratings influence future viewings? What if I find out how many people allegedly watched a programme that I also watched and liked? Will I like it even better and feel reassured in my TV taste? What if only few people watched ,my’ programme, and the reviews were bad? If it turns out that only people younger than 14 and older than 60 watched it? Will that make me feel bad so that I would pretend not to have liked it or to have watched something else? („only saw it very briefly while switching channels“)
Or the other way around: Will I continue watching a series that I disliked but that got good ratings and suddenly start to become a fan? Do I need „Likes“ for my orientation? Are ratings all about money?

Sign on a café in Berlin: Like us on the facebook - and get a free Espresso

Sign on a café in Berlin: Like us on the facebook – and get a free Espresso

Some years back I told a friend about the Argentinian feature film EL ABRAZO PARTIDO (director: Daniel Burman) that I had seen in the competition of the Berlin International Film Festival. My friend wanted to look it up in some film rating index, which – according to him – contained „all important and good films“, but not El Abrazo Partido. So it could not really be a good film. Indeed? Sometimes the TV Ratings business reminds me of this encounter. If something gets low ratings it can’t be really good (mind you, ever so often when a film on a public channel gets good ratings people say „well, but it was only people over 60 that watched it“ – so they would be a less good audience?)

Having said that I’d like to stress my doubts that the figures published as TV ratings correlate to the actual number of people watching. They are but estimates, the GfK’s extrapolations of the rate measurement results from 5,000 households with a total of 10,500 persons, of the use of television, or rather the switching-on of TV sets.

  • Are the 5.000 households an adaqute sample representating the approximately 78 mio. people older than 3 in Germany?
  • Are the transmitted results correct, i.e. does rate measurement box switched on correspond with having watched programme?
  • Do the conclusions drawn from the extrapolated data make sense?
  • Are there interest groups and lobby organizations for television audiences, just like they exist for public transport and German rail? (granted, that is a different topic)

In digital times TV shows are not only watched on television. However, the GfK disregards those among the 10.500 people that watch a programme on the internet, or record it for later use, or watch it in the media centers of the broadcasters, or watch it at a friend’s house or in a pub. How about those that switch on the telly and the measurement box but are not watching the screen but are on the phone in another room, do the washing-up, play on the x-box, doze off on the settee? Are they rateable audience? And what about those that cheat a little bit about their TV watching?

Now, regarding the evaluation and interpretation of TV ratings let’s look at an example from December. On the 27th Sat1 showed a gala show for the birthday of actor / director Til Schweiger (he turned 50 on Dec. 19), the following day the ratings were published. This is what the internet magazine DWDL wrote (and it’s in German but I will translate it): Little Interest in the Birthday of Til Schweiger. The audience certainly did not wait for this. “Happy Birthday – Til Schweiger” was only watched by 1,49 million, which only adds up to grotty 5,0 percent. It did not really look brighter in the target audience. Only 820.000 wanted to celebrate the actor’s birthday with Sat!. The grotty share in market of 7,6 percent for those between 14 and 49 certainly won’t call for a celebration today in Unterföhring“ (that’s the small place in the south of Germany where the station Sat1 is located).
Why so much malice? Does the author draw a personal pleasure from a show getting a smaller audience than anticipated and hoped for? But let’s have a look at the news on media news site MEEDIA of the same day, here we find the following information, on the page with the heading „Birthday show for Til Schweiger is a total Flop“: Among other smaller stations SUPER RTL was convincing. “Asterix“ allures more than a million viewers to Super RTL. (…) 1.13 mio. people watched „Asterix and the Big Fight“ that’s a
good 3.6 %. 3.6 % are good and 5 % are grotty – 1.49 mio. is a Flop whereas 1.13 mio. are convincing?

To better understand numbers like these here are some more: Cologne has 1.024 mio. inhabitants, at the 2013 German general election the Pirate Party were elected by nearly 960,000 people, that’s grotty 2.2 percent of the cast votes. The second most successful German feature film of 2012 – CLOUD ATLAS – sold 1.14 mio. tickets. 1.49 mio. spectators will have visited the Hamburger Schauspielhaus (Germany’s largest theatre) after 1,240 sold-out performances. So a TV audience of 1.49 mio. is not really dazzling but certainly not negligible.

TV are among other things also influenced by the TV slot, by chance and by bad luck. A film or documentary, a series or report, that are scheduled for a sunday night at 8.15 p.m. are starting badly because that is the time of the TATORT (Germany’s most popular crime series), so a great part of the audience would probably watch that no matter what. Then the image of a channel will probably have an effect. And Chance. My film is on at 8.15 p.m. on a week day, things look good, no unusual competition, but then suddenly something happens politically so there are newsflashes and special coverage on TV. Or maybe a Royal Baby is born, or a new pope elected, or there is a football match being covered. In 2013 the television programme with the highest rationgs was the men’s football champions league final, more than 21 mio. watched that on ZDF. It was only determined 4 weeks before in the semi-finals that there would be two German teams in the final, at which point most TV channels would have set their programmes, which then obviously had less chances of a large audience.
On a side note: Thomas Bellut (director general of the ZDF) justified the 50 mio. € that the ZDF paid for one year’s champions league broadcasting (which were broadcast on free TV station Sat1 up to then) especially with wanting to attract new and younger audiences for the HEUTE JOURNAL (a news magazine) that would be broadcast during half-time. Apparently judging from the ratings this plan has come off partially, but maybe it’s just that viewers with the rate measuring boxes left them on during the heute journal but went to the bathroom, or to the kitchen to get more beer, or they turned down the sound and analyzed the first half of the match.
And then there’s also bad luck. The bad luck of hearing of a great show, film or episode too late, after it had already been on, being told by friends who had seen and recommended it. But this sort of bad luck is not so bad any more as in the old day because we have the internet. And of course there are repeats.

Striving for the highest ratings and fighting other channels and the effects this has on programme and people is shown in a vivid, amusing and bitter way in the third season of the Danish TV series BORGEN: the new, hip and young head of programming Alexander Hjort subordinates everything to the pursuit of high TV rates and popularity and forces Torben Friis, head of news, to turn the news broadcasts into some sort of spectacle. But that is a different topic.

Of course as an actress I am very happy when a film or series that I am is well received and watched by masses. Just as I am happy when some series’ episode that I enjoy as part of the audience is popular and will continue to be produced and broadcast. But for that I – and hopefully the broadcasters – don’t need the ratings. I am also quite sympathetic with great shows that are broadcast on less popular channels and therefore don’t get large audiences (according to the ratings). This goes for quite a number of series being shown on arte (BORGEN, THE SLAP, TOP OF THE LAKE) which all deserve ratings like TATORT, men’s football, FARMER WANTS A WIFE or I’M A CELEBRITY.

But let’s look at another example that shows the absurdity of the ratings quite well: DER TATORTREINIGER (the crime scene cleanup man). This is a funny series produced in the north of Germany by NDR. There were 4 episodes originally that were only seen by 50.000 viewers on average or even less. Of course it has to be taken into account that the episodes were first broadcast between December 23rd and 27th 2011, each time between 3.30 and 5.30 a.m. (!), and that they were hardly advertised. The same goes for the second round of screenings a few days later, episode 1 and 2 were shown on Wednesday Jan. 4 and thursday Jan. 5 2012 around 10.30 p.m., this was announced in a press release two days earlier (The Tatortreiniger with Bjarne Mädel). Episodes 3 and 4 weren’t shown again. Bad TV slots and poor PR. Despite all this a few people watched and loved it, and the Tatortreiniger was nominated for the Grimme Preis (important German TV award) and won in various categories in 2012 and 2013. Now the makers of the show were happy and more episodes were produced, – and broadcast! And today we can read (in German) on the website of the NDR The Tatortreiniger enthuses both the audience and the critics“ – and this in spite of the poor treatment by the NDR itself, and despite poor ratings.

Maybe the fixation on ratings is a remains from the early days of television when perhaps the means for measuring audience were copied from theatre and cinema. Maybe it is some sort of sign of nostalgic longing for times when there were only two TV channles and the audience and ist choices were managable. Or it has to do with higher further better, with larger and larger viewer numbers – instead of just developing a diverse choice for everybody.
Klaus Pierwoß who was the successful director of Bremen Theater for many years once commented on an audience survey. Yes, so these are the preferences of the audience. If we abide by them we may only show operettas. But the theatre has other duties.
By the way, just recently the ZDF terminated two successful high-rated series, the LANDARZT (country doctor) and the FORSTHAUS FALKENAU (forester’s house Falkenau). They are to be replaced by crime series. But that is a different topic.

What is really strange is that basically we all doubt the rating measurements, don’t we? Yet at the same time we believe in them, they are the state of affairs, the golden calf of the industry. Reaching back to „For Heaven’s Sake“: „No, I am not superstitious, but I heard that superstitions also work if you don’t believe in them.“
TV ratings exist, but they should not be taken too seriously.

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