An extremely basic point about American TV surprisingly many people don’t seem to get

Now, just to be clear, I am talking about standard commercial television. That means American television that is for-profit and ad-supported–basically everything except premium channels like HBO and not-for-profit channels like PBS and C-SPAN.

And also to be clear, I am not taking a position whether this is right or wrong or good or bad. I am simply pointing out that this is how things currently work, and in fact how they have worked since the beginning of American broadcasting.

Now, this is a really basic and important point, because it is pretty much impossible to understand some decisions networks make without knowing this. Ready?

You are not the customer. You are the product.

The network may get a very tiny amount of money from their share of your cable bill, but the overwhelming majority of their money comes from advertisers. But advertisers don’t buy ads from networks, they buy them from ad agencies. What they’re paying the network for is your attention.

The business of a network is not to make (or, more likely, commission) and transmit shows. That’s a stage in the process. The actual business of the network is to sell your attention to advertisers.

So, once again: you are not the customer. You are the product.

The show is not the product. The show is bait.

And that’s why Korra got moved to Friday nights and then pulled off the air.

7 thoughts on “An extremely basic point about American TV surprisingly many people don’t seem to get

  1. Possibly related, I'm sure you've heard of how people don't make shows starring women/black people/other oppressed minorities because of low ratings.

    But if you assume that a lack of positive representation in media is a bad thing – and I think there is evidence to show that it is – then saying that minority shows don't sell sort of condemns the entire for profit television system. Is that right, or am I missing something?

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  2. There could be a book length reply exploring this, but basically yes, you're absolutely correct.

    Cutting down to absurdly simplistic terms, if female/minority/etc. led shows can't be used to push product, then females/minorities/etc. aren't important, because they cannot be used to make money.

    About as damning a critique of capitalism as possible.

    (The reply, of course, is that not all shows are judged entirely on ratings. Seinfeld, the original Star Trek, and many others were kept on the air by executives who liked the program and wanted more of it. But this has nothing to do with desirable and reliable time slots, doesn't happen nearly so often nowadays, etc. Like I said, a book length reply would be possible and would be a really interesting read.)

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  3. This isn't a new insight to me personally; in fact, I came to understand it — no, I came to grok it — via an insight about another drug, one that's more obviously a drug than television or oil but probably less destructive to the human race as a whole:

    “The junk merchant does not sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client.”
    (William S. Burroughs, “Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness”, introit to Naked Lunch)

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  4. The problem is that female and minority-led shows can definitely be used to push product. Otherwise, past and present hit shows on network TV (Cosby Show, Family Matters, Gray's Anatomy – I know these are old, but they did exist) would have never been on the air. The problem is not that female and minority-led shows are incapable of making ratings / ad dollars. Rather, it's that the producers believe that they won't do so and so don't even give them a chance.

    In addition, sometimes those shows could definitely be used to sell stuff, but the producers have decided that this particular time slot will be used to sell this particular stuff and the show doesn't match that vision (even though it could sell other stuff very well). For example, Cartoon Network canceled Young Justice in part because it had “too many teenage girl” viewers. Now, teenage girls buy tons of stuff and marketing to them is huge. But because it didn't fit the advertising demographic Cartoon Network wanted and had sold ads for – teenage boys – they didn't see the value in it.

    This doesn't remove the damning critique of capitalism at all. It's a really harmful way to look at the world. However, I think it shows that the above mindset is stupid even within capitalism – ignoring entire audiences you could potentially sell stuff to is dumb.

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  5. Douglas Adams once did a piece about how most companies weren't in the business you think they're in, and this was one of his examples. (The other, IIRC, was that Xerox aren't in the business of renting out photocopiers, they're in the business of selling toner. Renting out photocopiers is how they create a market for toner.)

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  6. Oh, interesting, I'd be curious to track down that piece. I wonder if that's still true of Xerox–I believe copiers are now more commonly purchased than rented, but it's quite possible that selling ink cartridges is still the more lucrative part of the printer/fax/copier business.

    Another TV example: HBO does not have advertising. You actually ARE their customer–but the shows are still not the main thing they sell. As for regular TV, the shows are bait; what they're selling is subscriptions to HBO. That's why they've been, until very recently, so resistant to releasing their shows to streaming services (other than ones restricted to HBO customers)–yes, it's an extra source of people paying to see their shows, but their whole business model is predicated on hooking people on a particular show so that they'll buy an HBO subscription to watch it. If they can get that same show anywhere near as quickly on Netflix, for which HBO gets FAR less money than an HBO subscription, then that shoots HBO in the foot.

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