TV Land: The madness of modern media

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There’s only one thing on my mind this week. And no, it’s not pornography or Pop-Tarts. Those are so last semester. No. What I have in mind is far more glorious. It’s the return of “Mad Men” this Sunday on AMC. For nearly two years, we’ve been mired in a state of longing for Don Draper’s sharp suits. We’ve had to make do sans Roger Sterling’s trenchant wit. And, because of this lack, we’ve all developed drinking problems just to cope. That’s everyone right? I’m not alone in this alcoholism? Fine. Leave me hanging like a Salem witch circa 1692. Point is: “Mad Men” is back. Hallelujah.

When we last left this glamorous world of noon-time cocktails and casual racism, everyone was on the precipice of something new. Don had just become engaged to an attractive, young French Canadian. The company, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, found itself at a precarious professional crossroads.  The characters and circumstances had grown darker and more complex as the year 1965 drew to a dramatic close. But then “Mad Men” has always been a show centered around the conflict of change.

“Mad Men” acts as a microcosm of the chaotic societal and political shuffle that was the 1960s. And what better place to see this shift than in the place where culture is made and reflected — the advertising business. “Mad Men” functions as the best gauge for measuring media consumption because that is the show’s bread and butter. Or, if you’re like Don Draper, replace bread and butter with whiskey and sexy ladies. I personally wouldn’t. Bread is my favorite food and I’m more interested in a broader question.

How does “Mad Men,” as a TV show, work within our current media industry? Within the context of the show, television has gained an increasingly prominent importance. Character Harry Crane represents this change. He went from amateur ad man — procuring accounts for print and radio — to someone who secures ads for TV placement. His job is concerned with what our modern television industry is obsessed with and that is ratings. Who watches TV? When do they watch it? What programs are they tuning into and for how long?

Since television’s inception in the 1950s, Nielsen Media Research has been the go-to firm for TV ratings and related market research. At first, their method of measurement included a viewing diary with which families and individuals could record what they watched and when. This became obsolete and habits and technology changed and in 1986, they introduced an electronic meter for digital measurement. Now, they sample a total of 25,000 representative households with a slightly more advanced electronic meter (it’s a black box with flashing red lights, nothing that fancy) and now they have Nielsen NetRatings to assess digital media.

But if there’s one theme I keep hankering on about (other than my proclivity for fatty foods and attractive historical figures), it’s how the television industry is changing. Viewing habits are more varied because technology has evolved considerably. I own an iPod Touch. I know what’s hip with the kids these days. Justin Bieber and fleece blankets from L.L. Bean. I know that stuff’s cool and I also know that Nielsen’s method has become somewhat obsolete.

TV shows live and die by their ratings. “Friday Night Lights” was on the brink of cancellation almost every season because it couldn’t corner high numbers in the coveted 18-49 age bracket. When “Mad Men” began, it barely hit the one million mark in terms of viewership. And now, those low numbers (between one and two million) are average for network shows. No longer do 52 million viewers tune in like they did in 2004 with the “Friends” finale. But, then, mass-appeal shows like “Friends” are becoming less common as technology advances and TV audiences become more esoteric.

What I’m saying is the television industry should pay more attention to “Mad Men.” Not for the show’s ratings, but for the characters’ ability to adapt with changing times. That and they should drink more. Always helps.