Family Guy

10 Oct

In the most recent episode of Family Guy titled “Ratings Guy”, the Griffin family is chosen to be a Nielsen family – they are given a Nielsen box which will monitor their viewership, and it will be used to generalize program ratings and determine what shows to put on TV. Soon Peter discovers the power he holds as a Nielsen family when the local news-anchor is willing to do silly things to get Peter to watch Channel 5 news. He then steals hundreds of Nielsen boxes to hold the power to affect national broadcasting television.  He obsesses over how his ratings can affect the industry- commentary that reflects upon the TV medium itself. This episode makes fun of how the networks are slaves to mass ratings, and they care about making profitable shows over quality television. Peter convinces Mad Men to include a lightsaber battle scene, and to somehow put Breaking Bad on roller skates, all because the network wants higher ratings. In the Spiegel article, it says how “NBC continually tried to channel the movements of the audience. Not merely content to fit its programming into the viewer’s rhythms of reception, the network aggressively sought to change those rhythms by making the activity of television viewing into a new daily habit (82). This is interesting because Spiegel makes it sound like the networks are controlling the viewer habits, but in this episode, Peter (representative of audience) is pulling the strings on the programming content and making fools out of the networks. At the same time, when the TV shows have become too ridiculous (in fact, a character references Mashall McLuhan and calls it a “vast wasteland”), the whole town, who is dependent on its regular programs, is in an uproar, so in that sense television does control them, and the television greatly affects daily life. This just brings up the question- who truly controls what is shown on TV?

Brian then blames the networks because they “pander to the lowest common denominator” and for profit, instead of having standards. He suggest to Peter to use the Nielsen boxes to put a positive influence on ratings by watching quality programming such as PBS. This reminds me of how Minows wanted to use broadcasting for the public interest through educational and quality programming.

However, when Peter gets the chance to fix television at the studio, he ends up perpetuating the same “wasteland” type programs- such as reality shows, office comedies, Law & Order clones and talent shows. It makes one wonder what kind of influence would be able to actually change what is on TV? Or if the everyday American, given a chance, would change the programs we have already been accustomed to watching as a culture. 

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5 Responses to “Family Guy”

  1. hleskosky October 10, 2012 at 6:44 pm #

    For one, it’s interesting that you mention the term “wasteland” because in the Williams reading, Williams quotes a 1960 Newsweek article about summer reruns on the networks which says “This TV summer is shaping up as a wasteland of stupefying familiarity…and…neither quality nor popularity necessarily has anything to do with the choice of revivals” (57). But this also shows that it’s evident that even in 1960, the networks were running shows that were pretty abysmal and “clones” of each other. These reruns did lose viewership over time, and the networks adapted, otherwise I don’t think they would still be around. So it seems that there’s a pretty equal balance between audience and network in terms of controlling what’s on TV.

  2. Eric Thurm October 13, 2012 at 5:10 pm #

    I think that sort of plot surrounding Nielsen ratings suggests that the relationship between network priorities, viewer desires, and what content actually appears is pretty complex. Nielsen ratings are a weird feedback mechanism (especially since they don’t capture a lot of the ways people watch “quality” television), and I suspect that what actually gets produced is the result of a process of the networks muddling toward what they think viewers will/should want and what viewers are actually interested in.

    That leaves a question of whether or not shows ever create an audience for something viewers didn’t know they wanted. Maybe something like Arrested Development?

    • leemac113 October 14, 2012 at 9:10 pm #

      I like that you brought up Arrested Development because it brings back a really interesting point that all of our talk of reruns has been revealing, which is that different viewers have different preferences of how they want to watch television (i.e. watching a show at its original airtime vs. watching a string of reruns vs. watching in a marathon). A big flaw of using Nielsen ratings to generate accurate feedback about a show is that it doesn’t take certain viewer types into account, viewers who are responsible for a show like Arrested Development attaining so much more acclaim after it was cancelled, to the point that the creators were forced to revive it.

      The Family Guy episode does a great job of raising some very interesting questions about the distinction between what viewers want to see and what networks elect to display, but I think the big joke in the end is one Family Guy has been making for years, which is that just because they are extremely self-aware and at times brilliant doesn’t mean they are incapable of displaying as much lowbrow humor as they need to in order to remain on the air.

  3. ambailey9113 October 14, 2012 at 11:15 pm #

    One of the interesting points that Phil Williams raises in his article “Feeding Off the Past” is that rather than forcing networks to produce better quality programming, increased television channels made possible by UHF resulted in the re-airing of subpar shows. Unlike what Newtown Minnow foretold in his “Vast Wasteland” speech, UHF ultimately failed to yield the educational and informative shows that he hoped for. This led me, like Crystal, to question of who controls what is shown on television. While the advent of a ratings system and Nielsen boxes would suggest that viewers have some influence on programming, in reality they reveal very little about the ways in which viewers watch programs or the quality of television shows (as another commenter has already pointed out). However, if we subscribe W.J.T. Mitchell’s theory of media, in this instance television, as an environment and channel of communication between viewers and TV programmers, producers, network executives, etc., then surely there are other means of “addressing” the medium that might be more effective in communicating the quality or popularity of a show. But how do average persons, meaning those who are not television critics or media personalities, address television? If the popularity of a show on a social network could be considered one method, how did Americans address media before?

  4. katherinesnyder14 October 14, 2012 at 11:47 pm #

    I think it is especially interesting to look at how the major broadcasting networks try to wrestle between creating higher quality or “smarter” television and maintaining or increasing their ratings. Arrested Development is a good example of this. It is a cult-classic and critically acclaimed, but struggled to remain on the air for three seasons before it was cancelled. As well-written and clever as it was, the week long breaks between episodes, among other issues, made it difficult for the average viewer to follow from week to week, causing ratings to drop. The internet, however, had other ideas and demanded the return of Arrested Development, and, this time, it is on the viewers terms, as all episodes are being released at once, to give it a feeling more closely resembling watching it on a dvd box set. Even more interesting is that the new episodes are not being released by Fox, the original network the series aired on, but on Netflix.

    It is easier for pay channels or services, like HBO, AMC, Bravo, or Netflix to produce “better” shows because they are not slaves to ratings like the main networks have to be. A current example of this same problem is the comedy Community on NBC. While it might just be the best comedy on television, Community has never had a large audience, and, therefore, suffers from low ratings that threaten to cancel the show. In many ways, Nielsen ratings are antithetical to more intelligent or clever tv on major broadcasting networks because they are too afraid of failing to reach the lowest common denominator.

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