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Measuring Television

How do you measure the success of a television program? Perhaps the answer differs from program to program; I start with some examples.

In the case of an Open University broadcast the answer seems clear, the tutors will report back whether the students understood the point that the program aimed to teach. If too few students understand, that broadcast must be revised. But wait. The situation is more subtle. Adding more explanation might help the students to understand, but it also lengthens the broadcast. What will be dropped from the syllabus to make room? The ideal situation, as far as the revisor of the broadcast is concerned, is to discover that the students are being confused by unnecessary material. Removing the superfluous material both improves comprehension and shortens the broadcast, thus improving it along both dimensions.

If a broadcaster wants to measure the merit of its gardening programs it could do worse than to commission surveys of the nation's gardens. Peering over hedges and fences might reveal whether the programs advice is being followed. More simply, the survey might look at how well kept the nation's gardens are, on the basis that a successful gardening program is one that encourages persons to look after the gardens, even if its specific advice is not applicable. The danger from such a survey lies in the possibility of a negative answer, as the nation's gardens decline, due to gardeners remaining indoors watching gardening shows on TV.

A health program might decide to target heart disease by encouraging viewers to take moderate exercise. One measure of success is the actual mortality due to heart disease. The long and uncertain delays connecting exercise and mortality surely preclude attributing changes to specific TV programs. But a surrogate is to look for persons taking exercise in public. If they were asked for their reasons, they might even mention being encouraged to exercise by TV. Again, this risks the unwelcome discovery of persons substituting watching TV programs about the benefits of exercise for exercise itself.

A current affairs program might judge the success of its coverage of foreign trade by sending questionaires to it audience. Had the program refuted what Adam Smith called "the interested sophistry of merchants" or did the audience remain deceived?

Enough of program by program examples. Current practise has no time for such fussy and impractical metrics. Good programs are the ones with lots of viewers. A program justifies its time slot by building its audience week by week. If gardeners miss next weeks show because they are busy pruning their roses the way they were shown last week, it is a bad show. If couch potatoes miss next weeks health show, because they have gone for a walk, as instructed by last weeks show, it is a bad show. If policy wonks miss next weeks current affairs show because they are reading The Wealth Of Nations to see what Adam Smith meant by "the interested sophistry of merchants", then it is a bad show.

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