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Aug. 7, 2013, 10 a.m.

Summer Reading 2013: “Due To Circumstances Beyond Our Control” by Fred Friendly (1967)

“Independent specialists in the field of sampling are convinced that a television and radio industry [reliant on Nielsen ratings]…is in the position of gauging space-age tolerances with the kind of dip stick used to measure the amount of gas in a Model T.”

Editor’s Note: The Nieman Foundation turns 75 years old this year, and our longevity has helped us to accumulate one of the most thorough collections of books about the last century of journalism. We at Nieman Lab are taking our annual late-summer break — expect limited posting between now and August 19 — but we thought we’d leave you readers with some interesting excerpts from our collection.

These books about journalism might be decades old, but in a lot of cases, they’re dealing with the same issues journalists are today: how to sustain a news organization, how to remain relevant, and how a vigorous press can help a democracy. This is Summer Reading 2013.

Due To Circumstances Beyond Our Control by Fred Friendly

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When big news develops today, we have an expectation it’ll be splashed across our TV and the other screens that occupy our time. It could be the bombing at the Boston Marathon or a dangerous police chase on the interstate: We know that our TV will be interrupted.

Fred Friendly would be relieved by this. Friendly was the news producer who worked with Edward R. Murrow on shows like See It Now and before becoming president of CBS News. That all ended in 1966 when Friendly resigned after executives at the network chose to air an episode of The Lucy Show rather than show live coverage of a Senate hearing on U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Due To Circumstances Beyond Our Control was published in the wake of Friendly’s split with the network, and the book carries no small amount of indignation about the state of TV news. On the surface, Friendly’s book is an account of his 16 years at the network, reflecting on the stories he pursued with Murrow and the evolving status of the news operation inside CBS. In some ways, Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control reads like an early tell-all, outlining the faults of a network more concerned with commercial hits and ratings than reporting the news.

But the book is also a warning about the future of TV in a world where competition among networks and changing viewer habits threaten to reduce the importance of news. “If you condition an audience to expect The McCoys or Leave It To Beaver,” he writes, “of course it will reject the Vietnam hearings or a McNamara news conference when it is broadcast in their place.”

One problem, Friendly says, is data. Specifically, ratings — how success is measured on TV, and how that success influences what advertisers pay for. His words may resonate today with other news producers or editors who are searching for the right metrics for news and other programming — in particular, his assessment of the value of Nielsen and its ratings is interesting as the company tries to expand its system to include viewers on new platforms.

I never knew anyone at CBS who thought much of the Nielsen sample. There were constant attempts to have it improved, but the standard answer to any protest about it was: “Don’t knock it; advertisers take it as their bible and the advertising rates are established by it.” And when it came to predicting what program those twelve hundred sets would be tuned to, the CBS buyers were wizards. Whatever the knack is, the other networks have now developed similar extrasensory perception, and the difference in the ratings between the three networks at certain hours or even for the week’s average is sometimes less than a point.

A.C. Nielsen, Sr., with whom I once discussed the power of his sample, defends the survey as reasonably accurate, though not to be construed as a finite measurement of the viewing habits of millions. What the networks do with his figures is their business, he says, but it was not his idea that they should be the basis for choosing all of the broadcast schedule. Independent specialists in the field of sampling are convinced that a television and radio industry whose revenues total $2,750,000,000 a year and spends so little on audience research as to afford only a survey of the Nielsen proportions, is in the position of gauging space-age tolerances with the kind of dip stick used to measure the amount of gas in a Model T.

Regardless of the accuracy or distortion of Nielsen’s projections, they are fed into that vending-machine bureaucracy and are the final arbiter. There are exceptions, but in general the staple diet of television is cued to the taste of those twelve hundred homes. The fact that the popularity of programs is based on a sliding scale makes this barometer no less pernicious. Programs like F Troop and Gilligan’s Island are on the air because they are in the middle range of ratings, but if some exciting new gimmick appeared and dropped them in the comparative standings they would be in trouble, even if their Nielsen ratings remained constant. As soon as the system realizes that there is a larger potential audience to be found in another format, a weaker program will disappear, for what television now demands is the largest possible audience. Testifying before the FCC, Frank Stanton as much as defined it in these terms: “…to appear to most of the people most of the time…”

POSTED     Aug. 7, 2013, 10 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Summer Reading 2013
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