But now it's changing, whether we want it to or not.
Recent media treatment of this phenomenon makes it clear that we aren't quite ready for the changes. Right now, we are in denial--the scales haven't quite fallen from our eyes. But this is a serious and angry denial involving high-paid executives and threatened litigation, and just about everyone scrambling for cover. But it's still denial, a massive group-think to figure out how to fix the ratings, replace Nielsen, punish Nielsen, or just find out why--specifically--men aren't watching TV anymore.
None of these are the problem. The issue goes much deeper. For us, the industry dubbed the "Myth Makers" actually has depended on some very complex and intricate myths as we have built our multi-billion-dollar myth-making industry.
Did Nielsen ever offer more than a gross proxy for the real television audience? No, but that was okay, as long as that stand-in was big and growing (and the one with the most buying power). Were media planners ever blind to the implications of magazines inflating circulation numbers with cheap subscription drives? Even in the days of the two-martini lunch, everyone knew that the value of the impression had to decline. It's just that nobody much cared to do anything about it. Certainly, nobody from the agencies would; and even advertisers blithely ignored it because there was no alternative to TV other than print. Those four-color spreads were so beautiful.
The naked truth is that the foundation is not cracking--it was simply never there. It was just a series of shared beliefs, like a religion, or a culture. And, yeah, there was a basis for it--a methodology, even a rationale. But it wasn't reality.
The temptation will be to replace this religion with a new one. This happens all the time. The alternative would be to assume that life without these myths will be pretty bleak and profitless--a lot like what happened in the former Soviet Union.
Instead, let's be strong.
First, blaming Nielsen or ABC now is unfair. We all lived and thrived with the illusion together. It's callow of us to throw blame elsewhere now--just when "suddenly" the reality doesn't match our needs to justify the investment of millions of dollars in television advertising--that we begin to doubt its validity.
Second, we already have a media that is forced to deal with reality every day: The Internet. And despite the best efforts of a few misguided media folks to market it as the proxy for TV, the Internet really is the stand-in for the next generation of TV. It is viewer-controlled, interactive, and thus completely responsive to reality. It is what TV viewers are doing today--already--and in a far more thorough scale.
We know if they are there. We know what they do, like, and want. And we know how not to annoy them. In other words, the Internet enables us to be the perfect brand steward, salesperson, and customer service agent--all rolled into one. We can measure success and failure--yep, in the real world that was the hard part. But better yet, we can learn fast, and that speed enables us to fix what needs fixing.
But can we be creative? Will there ever be another Apple/1984 or Coke's Mean Joe Green spot? The answer is probably No; On the Internet, there won't. But that has nothing to do with the Nielsen ratings. It has to do with a transformation of a media where other new elements are at play. And where there is play there is creativity.
Advertising and marketing are changing. Pundits will call for change management--a wonderful oxymoron--because change by its nature can't be managed. It happens, we manage to succeed through it.
So once everyone--or most of us--are out of denial, we should once again let the consumer lead us to the promised land. They did it with TV, and they are doing it again. Consumers today are leading us right over there: to the computer, to the Internet, to TiVo, to the future. Let's go!