We Live in Ratings Hell

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For most people, it is true that the ratings of Event X for Network Y have negligible-to-virtually-zero impact on their lives. That cannot be said for those working in sports media — even the lowest caste of blogging. Interest and financial viability of a certain offering has a ripple effect, touching off future decisions made by rightsholders and future preferences of the public, which is largely trapped in a confusing chicken-and-egg situation with content creators. Look no further than the quintessential debate over whether the masses actually want lowest-common-denominator fare or if that decision has been taken away from them by corporate systems which seek profit over service.

So let it be said that an infinitesimally small faction of lives are directly affected by television ratings. But they shouldn't be used for effect. Because the folly of looking at a 12.5 compared to last year's 11.9 or whatever is plainly obvious and shortsighted. It nearly defies belief that so many ascribe binary judgements on what's healthy and what's flailing. Worse, the practice of using literally any data point to justify and reinforce a preexisting idea about the world, more often than not deeply political, only perpetuates a dead-end cycle.

A sane mind reels daily trying to keep up on the narratives. Are the NFL and NBA up because they've embraced social-justice endeavors? Is college football down because they haven't? What about MLB and the NHL, which have largely been thrust to the background? Are things changing drastically based on who stands for the national anthem and who kneels?

It's all dizzying and unable to withstand even the slightest critical pushback. More importantly, reading the ratings tea leaves and subsequently clutching pearls or beating chests is a giant waste of time. It's either concern-trolling or perpetuating one's biases or preconceptions on an ever-refreshing event horizon.

At the very core of ratings analysis is the attempt to diagnose the health of a specific sport or league or entity. The experts ascribe misplaced value to eyeballs and bend like dandelions in the wind to any type of new force. All of this belies the very basic yet not entirely sexy reality that the handwringing is a waste of time.

What, pray tell, is going to befall the NBA, NFL, or college sports world if six percent of its previous audience stops watching? These leagues and organizations aren't going to fold. On the contrary, they'll continue to print money. To the same end, high viewership does not reflect the overall health and societal impact of whatever is being televised.

For example, an 8 percent rise in professional football ratings does not mean that all is well with the NFL. That is a far more complex and challenging conversation with its main points of contention far afield from the issue of popularity.

While it should be simple to grasp this truth, some people require a striking real-world example. And, well, we certainly have that among the smoldering wreckage of last night's presidential debate. To borrow from a previous bit, it's Mourning in America as the plain reality that we are absolutely and profoundly screwed sets in anew. No rational, thinking person could watch that trainwreck and conclude that our democracy is in a good place.

Yet the ratings will be astronomical. Just like they were through all of 2016. You remember four years ago, when things were, uh, somehow less bad? The Trump-Clinton debate interest buoyed news channels. It did not buoy the people or the overall infrastructure of safety, security, or prosperity.

A rising ratings tide does not lift boats. It lifts the boats of the televised participants and it lifts the yachts of the rightsholder. If everyone else drowns, well, who cares? At least the balance sheet looks good.

I understand if all this sounds either too basic or far too cynical. But goddamn it do we seem to be stuck in a cycle where Eagles-Bengals interest is a missile in a culture war. Where ratings have become another objective figure that can be contorted to fit any subjective stance. That's why it may be best to not even pick up the salt shaker as opposed to taking everything with a grain of salt.

Consider how specious and really unimportant to last night's debate the ratings will ultimately be when they are available. Consider the minute portion of the story they tell. Then ask if there might be some commonality with the sports version of this conversation that seems to never cease. Consider what that all might mean.

Or, you know, keep trying to keep score in a game with no rulebook and no end. For no reason. Whichever feels like a more productive use of time.