Lose the Scorecard

Obsession With Stats Obscures the Real Story

By Published on .

Question: Which network will pull down the biggest haul in the upfront market this year?

Question: Which was more impressive, the opening weekend box-office take of "Spider Man 3" or the opening weekend of "Pirates 3"?

Question: How many people tuned in to the finale of "American Idol"?

Answer: Who cares? Who cares? And, er, who cares?

I mean, really, this obsession we have with keeping score is out of control. More than that, it's dangerous because it allows us to avoid dealing with real issues, just as the attention devoted to Lindsay Lohan's inability to leave the party early distracts from the realities of the mess we've made in Iraq.

Remember when all the young men went missing in 2003? At first there was widespread panic that they had turned off their TVs, and put themselves out of the reach of advertisers. They were at the computer or playing videogames or out drinking or in their parents' basements. Then, just as suddenly as they left, they came back. Networks convinced ad buyers that TV was still the best way to reach them, that they didn't have to worry so much about all those other options. And we all breathed a sigh of relief and moved on, and forgot about the missing men.

The same cycle happened in the movie business. A box-office slump in 2005 led to the conclusion that people were abandoning movies because they no longer would tolerate sitting in theaters with sticky floors and stale popcorn surrounded by strangers chatting on cell phones. Studios fretted that audiences' sense of consumer empowerment had extended to film, and that they would demand simultaneous release of films in theaters and on DVD. Then the theaters grew crowded again, and the studios convinced themselves that no one wanted to go blind squinting at a two-hour movie on an iPod when they could be watching it in all its glory on a big screen with surround sound in the communal atmosphere only the theater could provide.

Reality, alas, is never quite so neat, and broad-stroke conclusions don't count as solutions.

Whether or not young men are tuning in to TV, the reality is that marketing to them in the digital age is a much more sophisticated process that involves reaching them at the right time in the right place with the right message, whether through a cell phone, a viral video or a TV spot.

The same goes for movies. The studios can put all the marketing might they want behind their often-mediocre franchise films in a bid to break opening-weekend records and prove that people still love the theater experience. But they still have to confront the impact of new technologies and the closing window between the releases of their products across platforms. There will always be people who want to see movies in theaters, and those who don't. That choice should be in the hands of the audience, not the studios or the exhibitors. This is not about whether day-and-date release on DVD will affect sales of M&Ms in the theater; it's about respecting the audience and giving viewers the opportunity to find (and pay for) the content where, when and how they want to consume it.

The upfront market is more of the same. Let's forget for a moment the manipulation of the numbers thrown around by the networks and published in the media (yes, Ad Age included). They serve some purpose as a directional benchmark, but they're not even close to a reliable indicator of the state of network TV. As one sales vet said to me, "It's like checking the score of a game in the fifth inning and treating it like it's the ninth inning and the game's over." How the networks perform in the upfront matters, but full-year numbers matter more, and even then have to be viewed in a larger context. Regardless of whether the total take is up or down slightly, there are much bigger challenges impacting the TV business, and much more complex conversations being had—about digital opportunities, viewer engagement, commercial ratings and brand integration.

"That guy's better than his baseball card," they say of players whose skills and contributions to a team can't easily be captured by a batting average. The same is true in business. Keeping score is fun, but stats don't tell the story.

Most Popular