Ratings put me off my brekkie

Hosts of Channel Ten's <i>Breakfast</i> show: Magdalena Roze, Paul Henry, Andrew Rochford and Kathryn Robinson.
Hosts of Channel Ten's Breakfast show: Magdalena Roze, Paul Henry, Andrew Rochford and Kathryn Robinson.

DO PEOPLE care about ratings? Obviously some do - advertisers and network executives and the cast and crew of TV shows. But I don't mean them - I mean real people. People like you and me, honest, hard-working Australians who plant ourselves on the couch of an evening and use the box as a way of momentarily forgetting the crushing despair of our lives. Do we care about ratings? Do we even pay attention to them?

Of course, there's a question mark over whether ratings reflect genuine viewing habits. I've never been a ratings person, and neither has anyone I know - are they like Liberal voters, meeting in secret and never coming out in daylight? The ratings figures are extrapolated from a relatively small sample, and I am sure the analysts know what they're doing, but can we really know that Winners & Losers is actually popular?

And what if we're being trolled by the people-meter community? What if these households are deliberately skewing the figures by putting Big Brother on every night even though they, like everyone else, would rather watch a Bert and Patti sex tape? That's a much more logical explanation than believing Big Brother is actually a hit, isn't it? Please tell me it is.

I first became suspicious when The Voice became a massive hit. Could it really be this easy, I wondered. Could television uber-success really be as simple as swapping Seal's medication with that of an actual seal, and installing swivel chairs on The X Factor's set? Surely somewhere, ratings surveyor OzTAM was pulling a con.

But my problem is, I don't really care about ratings. Every day the networks put out press releases trumpeting a ratings success and it doesn't mean anything. Is Ten's unceremoniously axed Breakfast a bad show just because its viewers are outnumbered by the actors who played Lucy on Neighbours? No - it's a bad show because Paul Henry is the host body for a mediaeval mischief demon.

Ratings have nothing to do with Breakfast's awfulness, any more than Firefly being a bad show because it rated so poorly it was axed after 15 episodes, and only got that far because Joss Whedon got its entire audience to pretend to be four people each.

So I don't worry about ratings. I worry about how a show makes me feel: does it make me laugh, make me cry, make me bite my nails, make me feel hope for the human spirit, or make me want to throw Karl Stefanovic off a boat? I could be chuffed that a show such as Homeland, which I love, is rating well, but Two and a Half Men rates well, too, so it doesn't mean much.

But, sadly, those other people do worry about ratings. And if a show I love rates badly, it'll go before its time. Firefly, Freaks and Geeks, Arrested Development, all of them went that way, and it really saddens me to think such masterpieces are so much at the mercy of the whims of populism.

Isn't there a better way? A way we can let shows live or die on their innate quality, rather than their vulgar numbers? Isn't there a way, essentially, that programming decisions can be made purely according to my own personal tastes?

I dream of it coming to pass.

This story Ratings put me off my brekkie first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.