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Culture Notes

Measuring the hits

The entertainment industry is realizing that its ways of measuring the popularity of music recordings and TV shows has serious flaws. Billboard magazine's Hot 100 chart has been the prime certifier of number-one records for nearly 50 years. Based on a combination of record sales and radio airplay, the chart is susceptible to flagrant manipulation. One practice of record labels is to discount singles, which normally sell for $4.99 for a CD and $2.99 for a cassette, to as low as 49 cents, or sometimes even a penny. Such releases naturally sell more than their competitors. Disc jockeys, in turn, assume their listeners want to listen to such a hot-selling single and therefore play it more often. As a result, the song climbs up the charts. Once it becomes a certified hit, though by manipulation of the system, the recording attracts even more fashion-conscious consumers, bolstering the lucrative sale of albums and concert tickets. Billboard is devising a new system in an attempt to correct the abuses. The Nielsen ratings, which track the performance of television shows, are also undergoing scrutiny. The practice of determining ratings on the basis of the percentage of television sets tuned to a particular program fails to take into consideration the number of people actually watching the program. As a result, viewers of family-oriented shows in particular are significantly undercounted. When a family of five watches a program together, it has five times the viewership of a sex-and-violence miniseries watched by a single teenager. But the Nielsen system counts them exactly the same, since it counts TV sets rather than viewers. Attempts to change the rating system with the help of new technology are being studied. A system that more accurately measures how many viewers a program reaches may well give networks a huge incentive to turn out programs that whole families would enjoy watching together.

Back to the coliseum?

Nature shows have become synonymous with wholesome TV, with wildlife documentaries being seen by parents as an educational alternative to the mayhem and depravity that reign on most of the networks. But now the pop culture's appetite for violence--and better yet, real-life violence--is being sated by programs featuring animals tearing each other up and mauling human beings. Besides watching lions eating zebras and sharks feasting on cute little seals, television viewers today can entertain themselves by watching actual footage of an elephant trampling its trainer to death, pit bull attacks, and bears mauling hikers. Short-term series (trotted out in the network sweeps months in which programmers shoot for big ratings to set their ad rates) include Vicious Animal Attacks on Fox (which scored the second highest rating in its time-slot) and World's Most Dangerous Animals on CBS. Features on Dateline on NBC and National Geographic specials have also highlighted animal violence. Once stodgy PBS, patriarch of the wildlife documentary, now has episodes of Nova titled Shark Attack! When fictionalized violence reaches its limit and becomes boring, the next step is titillation through the spectacle of real violence. Thus the popularity of macabre videos of executions and auto accidents. Animal violence is the milder equivalent for network TV. Christians would be the first to acknowledge that nature is, in the words of Tennyson, red in tooth and claw. But the vogue of animal violence is another parallel between end-of-the-century America and Roman civilization in its decadence, which also enjoyed watching animals attack gladiators and each other.

More corporate responsibility

Wal-Mart, whose refusal to sell debauched CDs and videos has sent a tremor through the entertainment industry, and Colorado cable company TCI, which has decided to carry only family-friendly networks, are joined by a perhaps unlikely convert to the notion that corporations should be morally accountable. Anheuser-Busch has announced that it will no longer air beer ads on MTV. The mega-brewer's new policy may be emulated by others in the industry. Miller, the second-largest beer manufacturer, has no plans to pull its ads but is studying the possibility. Coors, a large donor to conservative causes, has always refused to advertise on MTV. Of course, Anheuser-Busch should not be praised too highly for what is essentially a moral no-brainer. For all practical purposes, MTV's audience is made up wholly of teenagers, and the practice of targeting alcohol commercials to adolescents below the legal drinking age is a long-running scandal. The beer-maker is probably responding to public pressure and the threat of regulatory action. Nevertheless, the trend of free-market corporate responsibility is a healthy cultural sign.