Buying Television Ratings in Taiwan

(China Times[in translation]

Chinese Television System (CTS) president Chiang Hsia (江霞) made the astonishing claim today: "In normal countries, television ratings are trustworthy.  But in Taiwan, ratings can be bought."  She swore an "oath" that ratings can be bought with money or else "Chiang Hsia's head can be handed to you."

At a forum titled "Give me culture and forget all else -- elevate culture and stay away from the stench and violence," Chiang Hsia pointed out that television ratings is the source of the chaos in televised news.  Since becoming CTS president 18 months ago, she has never looked at any ratings.  

She said that media buyers and the ratings combine to go through "special analyses" by the ratings company, such that if you are willing to pay NT$500,000 to 1,200,000, you can get to be the ratings leader.

Using the fact that the Discovery Channel has a "zero" rating, Chiang Hsia declared that to be unthinkable.  She said that culture is the expression of life and so she does not worry about the absence of culture in Taiwan.  But the fact is that many places in Taiwan have their unique local cultures, and there are many places in Taiwan worth visiting.  As long as one produces lively and moving programs, someone will watch them.  So why worry about television ratings?
Chiang Hsia said that the 24-hour-news channels "create news" for the sake of ratings and when there is no news, they bring on the "spice girls."  This type of perversion is disheartening.  She said unless the ratings system is dismantled, there will be no peace in televised news in Taiwan.

Chiang Hsia said that the three broadcast channels used to be financially powerful, but they are now willing to turn themselves as enforcers for the government and instruments for brainwashing.  There are now more than 100 cable television channels, but they work on the same ideas.  The evolution of media to the current state is breaking the heart of someone who has been in the entertainment field for more than 40 years.

Furthermore, Chiang Hsia said that the entertainers today do not compete on acting skills; instead, they compete on who "shows" more of themselves.  What are the values when the media use this to decide what to show and the people use this to look at news?

Let me first dispense with the idea of "buying television ratings."  Speaking as a professional, I will tell you that it is nearly impossible to fudge the data that way.  It is not simply a question of accepting a bribe, taking an eraser and changing someone's rating of 2% to 5% to lead the whole market.  You actually have to change the micro-level data to make sure that everything is smoothly self-consistent, and this is an intractable problem in higher-dimensional geometry.  A professional would have smelled the act in a second.

No, what Chiang Hsia is talking about is "spinning" the same television ratings that have been delivered to all the users already.  Fact: the data have been delivered to everyone.  You can't change your own numbers because that is what not everyone else is seeing on their computers.  This is about "spinning" or presenting the best part of yourself.  

How to "spin"?

If you look at the audience ratings, there is always something called the total audience.  You can consult this previous post on newspaper audience ratings in Taiwan: Tabloid Journalism Trumps Politics in Taiwan.  For example, if the audience study is based upon adults 18 years or older, it may be that Liberty Times leads Taiwan in the total number of readers, followed by Apple Daily and then United Daily.  Is that how the advertising dollars are going to be divided?  Not necessarily.

No.  Apple Daily will be damned if they are going to stay in number two position.  So they analyze the data (paying for those "special analyses" if necessary).  Lo and behold, they find themselves to lead within the sub-group of persons between the ages of 18 and 39 years old.  Why is this big deal?  Because some advertisers target younger people and Apple Daily is therefore a better buy than Liberty Times.  In fact, it is entirely possible that Apple Daily may be the overall leader in advertising revenues because much more money is spent on targeting younger people.  Similarly, United Daily will not be content sitting in third place and it will obviously try its best to find a niche in which it leads and grab all the advertising money there.  This is the whole point of not having 100 channels that look exactly the same -- it is about channels competing for niches as opposed to contents decreed by government bureaus, sociologists and moralists.  Besides, the consumers are happy because they can get diversified programming.

What about television?  In cable television news in the United States, the market leader is Fox News, but CNN gets more advertising revenue.  How come?  Because CNN has a more desirable audience in terms of quality (better educated and more affluent) (see previous posts CNN vs. Fox News and CNN vs. Fox News).  Actually, the most profitable cable television news channel in the United States in terms of return on investment is probably CNBC (see my article Workplace Television Viewing by Financial Professionals).  The fact is that even a most miserable television channel can be number one for a weird situation, like Hispanic persons between the ages of 25-44 with income between US$50,000 to US$75,000 during Saturdays between 3am-4am.  Everybody is number one somewhere sometime among some people.  All you have to do is look hard enough.

This is nothing extraordinary.  How would you position yourself in a job resumé?  You probably can't and don't want to position yourself as the greatest person in the world on everything.  Instead, you customize your best attributes for the specific job opening.  Is that unethical all of a sudden?  So what if this is spin, because you are a loser otherwise!

If Chiang Hsia fails to grasp this point, then maybe her problem is that her background is programming as opposed to sales/marketing.  Her assumption is that as long as you have done your best in delivering the best programming that you can, your job is done.  Those ideas belong to the age of dinosaurs.  Today, the buzzwords are "maximizing cash flow," "maximizing shareholder value," "profitability" and "return on investment."  Most television companies are publicly listed corporations and the shareholders are not paying the chief executive to deliver the "best socially and morally desirable programming."  Maybe they should but the reality is that they expect to see good financial results for their investments.  If the chief executive believes otherwise, then he/she had better inform the shareholders explicitly what his/her objectives are and deal with the shareholder rebellion.  It may be that CTS is a something of a public television station and does not totally respond to market forces, but it is myopic and insane to insist that the CTS values must be imposed on all the 100%-commercial television channels.  For an example of how research data can be used effectively, see this previous post: In Defense of Roger Ailes.

Chiang Hsia also regarded the ratings system as the root of all evil for the chaos in televised news and society.  What happens if you become the first civilized country in the world to ban audience ratings?  First, the entire advertising industry would fall into disarray.  Just because you got rid of the ratings systems does not mean that you have gotten rid of the perverse programming on television.  No advertiser, advertising agency or media buying agency will accept that the optimal way to place advertisement is through their personal moral values.  They are all there to "maximize cash flow," "maximize shareholder value," "increase profitability and return on investment."  So they will look for surrogates for ratings.

How about the Internet?  Get on a news aggregator such as Yahoo! and see which television news channel gets the most mentions.  Oh, it is almost TVBS and ETToday most of the time because other channels are following their breakthrough stories.  So these must be the market leaders!  So they put their advertising money there in the absence of true ratings data.  The process then continues and you have achieved nothing other than earn a reputation for being dinosaurs to think that you can solve all your social problems by getting rid of the ratings. 

The basic issue is that people like watching those programs.  If you think that is a problem, then deal with it directly.  Ban the programs, fine the stations, or do whatever you have to do.  If that works, the ratings will reflect that you are successful.  Good luck with the political fallout on the way!