Thursday, April 24, 2008

The most watched ... ever

[Note: this seems, at the beginning, to be a sports post. It really isn't, so hang with it for a minute.]

Sports Illustrated has an interesting book excerpt in the current issue about the NFL championship game of 1958. This game matched the Baltimore Colts against the New York Giants, it went to overtime, and has attained near-legendary status:
This was the game that launched pro football into the stratosphere of billion-dollar franchises and multimillion-dollar player salaries. With 17 future Hall of Famers on the field and on the sidelines, it was watched by a TV audience of 45 million, the largest ever to witness a football game to that point. It remains in the memory of many sports fans.
[The forthcoming book is The Best Game Ever, its writer is Mark Bowden, the author of Black Hawk Down, and the excerpt is a good one. It focuses on Colts receiver Raymond Berry; if you have any curiosity as to how a receiver and quarterback develop the "mystical connection" that we've read about many times, you'll get a flavor of that here.]

I'm a bit young to remember this game, but the statements in the quote above were part of the commonly-accepted lore of football as I grew up. This was the game that made the NFL what it is today, served as a springboard for the business-ification of sports in general.

The main point that is mentioned is the TV audience, the unprecedented 45 million who watched the game and propelled it into the national consciousness. The excitement of the game and the high level of play hooked a whole generation of people on pro football, luring them away from the popular sports that prevailed at the time (college football, baseball, horse racing, and boxing).

There's a problem there: those 45 million people had to tune in before they knew how exciting the game was going to be. For the game to have created interest in pro football, the viewers would have had to know the game was going to overtime, and that 17 Hall of Famers were playing.

I'm not trying to discount a couple of other factors. It is at least theoretically possible that fewer people were watching at the beginning and, as it became clear that this game was going to be thrilling, viewers called other people ("Turn on your TV, Harold, this is great") and built the audience. Another idea is that there is a little causality problem in the writing, that people tuned in casually and became hooked by the excitement, so this game built the future audience.

I can't evaluate those two things, I think the first is a small effect, the second more plausible, so I still think there is something misleading about the common statements; there was already a growing interest in the game, people were already fascinated enough to turn it on. It may have been a catalyst for the growth of the NFL, but I don't see it as "the cause." (Another factor: the growth in number of TVs was so high during the '50s that the audience would have been higher, even if interest stayed constant.)

What does this have to do with politics, you ask? One of the defenses of last week's Democratic debate is that it was the most-watched of the debates during this primary season. Therefore, despite the minority of wonks who wanted more issue-oriented questions, viewership numbers prove that flag pins and Bill Ayres are important to voters.

Such nonsense. People had to make the decision to watch the debate based on their interest before they turned on the TV. To believe that George and Charlie asked the questions that America wanted asked requires us to believe that 10.7 million people somehow guessed what those questions would be.

Yet many people have written that the ratings will lead to more such questioning in the future. We're to believe that other broadcast outlets will look at the ratings and up the "gotcha" factor in future debates. And they probably will, given that logic doesn't seem any more part of the repertoire of newsrooms than anywhere else.

But, we can still argue to the contrary of what I've written if there was an increase in viewership from one hour to the next, as people got wind of the thrill-packed Reverend Wright questioned. No, the ratings actually went down 4% from the first hour to the second. Some of that may be the Idol factor, but we are still left with the basic precept that the ratings prove nothing about how much people liked the questioning. Those who claim otherwise are either trying to spin the outcome or trying to find false significance, whether they're trying to justify ABC's questions or the eternal importance of a football playoff game.

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