Commentary by Randall Rothenberg


A Show Hyped Far Beyond Its Real Reach or Value

By Published on .

Call me a churl, but I, for one, am only too happy to bid adieu to Sex and the City.

I'd long grown tired of all the ink spilled in my daily rags over a program I'd never seen. OK --"never" is too strong a word. I watched two episodes during the first two seasons, and found the show insufferably arch; after each line of dialogue, you could almost hear a muted trumpet doing the sort of winking tattoo that once punctuated scene-ends in bad sitcoms. So little of Sex rang true -- the fashions were either too louche or too bouffe, the intimacies too strained, the dialogue too witty by half -- that the only people who could fall for it were journalists who didn't get out enough.

Which is a point worth pursuing. For a simple look at some numbers will go a long way toward showing why newspapers, for one, are losing touch with their public.

U.S. television households number somewhere north of 100 million. Although cable and satellite penetration have grown exponentially in recent years, together reaching some 85% of the total, what is still quaintly called "pay TV" grabs only a portion of that. HBO, the top pay network, has about 33 million subscribers.

Within that cohort, Sex and the City has done well. About 5 million to 6 million viewers have tuned in (if that's still a verb) to the exploits of Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte each week during the past year, according to Nielsen. But that's less than one-fifth the viewers drawn by the top broadcast show, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

Do the math, and you'll discover that the CBS hit's audience equals HBO's entire subscriber base. In fact, sports aside, the top 20 broadcast shows pretty much always outpace pay cable's best.

But you wouldn't know that from the column inches spilled on Sex and the City. During the last year, Sex star Sarah Jessica Parker pulled in 2,001 clips, according to a cheap search on the Factiva database. Comedian Ray Romano, creator and star of Everybody Loves Raymond, whose average audience is about four times the size of Sex's, garnered only 805.

During the week ending Feb. 18, NBC's Law & Order outran Sex and the City by 1 million viewers. But poor Jerry Orbach, its star, drew only 193 newspaper articles during the past year.

On inspection, one finds that Sex and the City is a storefront in a gated community. Such shops can be wildly profitable (as Sex is, thanks to HBO's brilliant marketing of the franchise), but they're closed to all but a relatively affluent handful. Nothing wrong with that, but should the institutions that are supposed to be democracy's entry point -- by which I mean newspapers -- be celebrating incessantly these exclusive enclaves?

True, newspapers, like all media, have their demographics, and those demos have moved increasingly upscale and older as younger audiences obtain their news from TV and the Web. Newspaper executives have been scrambling to find ways to reach out to the missing millions. Hitching their caboose to the engine of pop culture is their preferred strategy. But that's a risky gambit, if they allow editors and reporters to populate their pages with unthinking self-references to their own psychodemographic obsessions.

When I was starting out as a magazine journalist, Jerry Goodman, a great editor then at Esquire, deleted a reference I'd made in an article to the 1950s flick Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

"Americans," he told me, "don't get cultural references." As I grow older, I re-learn that lesson every day.

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Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is chief marketing officer at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

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