x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Sniffing and snarling at TV's tricky digits

I wish I wasn't a total maths illiterate. Because when the studio sends the ratings research report out each week, I have no idea what it means.

My dog has a rubber toy that has a hollow core, and what you're supposed to do is fill the core with peanut butter or cheese or cubes of something delicious, and watch as she nudges it and bounces it and tries to get at the treat inside.

It's fun, of course, to see a dog burrow and dig and try to get to the tasty treasure. And it's also fun, sort of, to watch the nonplussed and confused expression on her face as she looks at what is, to her, a baffling and complicated object.

It's the exact same expression most people in the television business have when they're trying to figure out what the ratings mean.

Those of us who chose, years ago, to break into the entertainment business weren't the maths whizzes back in school. None of us - not the executives or the writers or any of the production crew - really understood numbers or statistics.

The maths whizzes from our high school years are all in Silicon Valley or Redmond or somewhere like that earning billions of dollars and making iPhone apps. Those of us who chose to enter less rational and scientific fields, like filmmaking, television writing, and French fry making, are either sitting in childish offices, trying to figure out which character would utter which joke, or standing behind a counter with plastic hygienic gloves on plunging a basket of potatoes into boiling hot fat.

But when the ratings come in, suddenly we're all experts. And like most experts, what we're really doing is bluffing.

"These are very good numbers," a writer friend told me last week, the day after my show premiered. "Very good numbers. You're up in the 25 to 54 range, you hold your lead in, and year over year you're showing growth for the network." He tapped the page with authority, but I knew he had zero idea what he was saying.

I was right. Within the hour, someone - another writer friend - had called with new information from another studio research department. "You had a soft debut," one of them insisted. "You did …. barely OK. You performed. But with summer HUT levels down, you did in the high middle range of OK performance."

"HUT levels", by the way, means "Households Using Television", which is a phrase that has always made me laugh. Households Using Television? What are they using it for? To keep from having meaningful interaction? To anaesthetise themselves?

But by lunchtime, there were more numbers out - the fast overnight ratings had been replaced and readjusted with more complete national numbers. Since the morning numbers just cover the major urban markets, the afternoon numbers include the rest of the country, all of which provided more opportunities for people who don't understand maths to pretend that they do.

"You did great with 18 to 39s," someone who called me insisted.

"Is that good?" I asked.

"Not really. The network is going for 25 to 54s. But you held your lead in. You kept the audience that the previous show had. That's something."

"I thought we lost one per cent of our lead in," I said.

"Oh, right. You did. Well, one per cent isn't much. Is it?"

It was like that all day. Some people would call with congratulations for numbers and ratings they didn't really understand.

When the final national numbers were released, I got a series of congratulatory calls from people who had read that we got 2.5 million views, followed by an email from a friend of mine who reminded me that, statistically, according to market research, at least one million of those were the wrong kind of viewer. They were too old, or too young, too rich or too poor.

By the end of the day I was either looking down the barrel of inevitable cancellation or riding high on the next big hit, depending on which person I spoke to last.

I wish, in other words, I hadn't slept through high school statistics. I wish I wasn't a total maths illiterate. Because when the studio sends the research report out each week, I have no idea what it means.

I don't know if I'm doing well, or utterly failing. I hold the paper in my hand and I stare at it like my dog. I sniff at it, and bat it around a bit and look at it with uncomprehending confusion. The only difference is, my dog knows there's a treat in there somewhere, and I don't.

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood. On Twitter: @rbcl?