The recent release by Nielsen and Sony of the 20 most memorable TV moments generated an enormous amount of news coverage, and why not? If there are two things that people love, it would be: 1) television, and 2) lists.
I don’t think the news media drew exactly the right conclusion from the study, though. According to Reuter, for example, the survey revealed “the most impactful TV moments of the past 50 years.” This is almost certainly not the case. It would be a very strange world where news reports on the death of Whitney Houston (#11) are more “impactful” than the coverage of JFK’s funeral (#20).
What the survey actually highlights is the unreliability of memory, and why metrics based on recall are less trustworthy than ones based on observed behavior. Of course, you could argue that since a memory that remains with you is by definition impactful, surveying for the most “memorable” events is one case where you can actually rely on a respondent’s memory. But I can’t help wonder if people are dredging up memories they don’t really have.
Consider the aforementioned death of Whitney Houston, which is probably on the list because it happened less than six months ago and is still fresh in everyone’s mind. If we wanted to measure the basic component of impact, we could check the ratings for that night and see how many people actually watched the coverage. My guess is that in terms of total audience, the number of TV viewers (mostly on cable on a Saturday night) was significantly lower than that of comparable events, such as Princess Diana’s funeral (#10). It’s entirely likely that many people who listed this as an impactful TV event actually learned about and followed the news via social media and saw only a limited amount of TV coverage.
Or consider The Challenger space shuttle disaster (#4). I vividly remember where I was when I heard the shocking news: in the office. Like most people in 1986, I lacked access to a TV at work so I immediately turned on a radio and didn’t see any TV coverage until I got home and watched the evening news. Since then, however, I‘ve seen the launch and President Reagan’s subsequent address replayed dozens of time, so to the extent I do have a TV memory, it’s been retroactively implanted in my brain.
The survey, fascinating as it is, also highlights that respondents frequently provide answers they THINK they should give rather than the ones they’d actually provide if they were being completely honest. All 20 of the most memorable TV moments were news-related, with nothing from sports or entertainment. Wanting to be a good citizen, the average American is more likely to say he remembers the death of Osama bin Laden (#5) than the Giants beating the Patriots in the most recent Super Bowl (which was, after all, the most watched television program in history). But saying so doesn’t make it true.
After all, what is a memorable TV moment? It’s a viewing experience of such intensity that you not only remember where you were when it aired, but what the room looked like. These experiences are not always related to news. If I had been surveyed, I would have included at least five entertainment broadcasts (listed here in chronological order) that have stayed with me:
1. First viewing of “The Wizard of Oz.” I was six years old, watching in my grandparents’ living room. The witch and Flying Moneys scared me witless -- an experience from which I have never quite recovered.
2. Chuckles the Clown’s death on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” I was watching in my senior year college dorm, and I laughed so hard I literally fell to the floor.
3. Bobby Ewing’s shower scene in “Dallas.” Watching in my apartment in Washington, D.C., sitting in the same chair where I’d watched Bobby die exactly one year earlier. Never been so surprised by a soap opera before or since.
4. The Jacket episode of “Seinfeld.” Not the funniest episode, but it was the first time my wife and I watched the show, and I vividly recall where we were sitting in our Manhattan apartment, and how delighted we were that we’d discovered this original new show.
5. Episode 2 of “Breaking Bad.” My son convinced me that this was a great series, so I got the disc from NetFlix. Two episodes in, Jesse buys the wrong bathtub, and when he uses it to dissolve a dead body, the acid burns through the tub and everything crashes through the ceiling. I was watching by myself in our living room and almost had a heart attack. That was the last episode I’ve ever seen.
OK, here’s me eating a little crow myself. After writing my top five list, I checked with my wife, and she has an equally vivid and probably more accurate memory of watching “Seinfeld” before we moved into the apartment mentioned above. This is backed up by my diary, which is very clear we didn’t watch “The Jacket” episode when it originally aired. So now I’m not sure where or when we watched the episode or if it was even the first time we watched “Seinfeld.” Turns out I’m no more reliable than anyone else.
So I guess the bottom line is that it’s fun to make lists from memory when nothing is at stake, but if you need a more concrete truth – one that you can do business on – stick to a metric you can double-check for accuracy. As President Reagan used to say, “trust but verify.”