So Comedy Central recently informed me via commercial that the pilot for “The Jeff Dunham Show” was its highest rated premiere to date. Meanwhile, critics across the country, including those for this publication, tell me watching the stand-up ventriloquist’s show is about as enjoyable as being a real-life ventriloquist dummy. Needless to say, there are some forces at odds here.

Now, from a TV producer’s perspective, the primary goal of television ought to be giving the viewers what they want. If they happen to want a shitty puppet show, then I guess we can give them one, and apparently we just did. But as you may have noticed, this column is in the Arts section and is about television, from which you may be able to infer that television is an art. That said, maybe it’s about time we treated TV more like an art form and less like a business model.

There are many culprits responsible for the overall wane in TV quality, but perhaps none so long-standing as ratings behemoth Nielsen Media Research. Now, I’m not necessarily going to blame Nielsen for the onslaught of consumer trash that has taken over the tube. That would essentially be shooting the messenger. But I do think that we should ignore the messenger, because, even though it’s not intended, the messenger is causing a lot of crap to get signed on for second seasons.

As sweeps season fast approaches, maybe it’s time that, for the sake of art, we give Nielsen a break. We have TV critics for a reason, I should like to think, and maybe just once we should let them have the say. If we went just one year without looking at Nielsen ratings or any similar system, the only basis there would be for assessing a show’s reception is criticism and word of mouth, the latter of which is not quantifiable and often affected by criticism anyway.

Ideally, assuming we critics are always right (which we are), there would be a year when all the utter sludge slathered onto the screen would meet a swift cancellation at the hands of the critics. People wouldn’t pander to the lowest common denominator of TV viewers, which is very low and very common these days.

The Nielsen ratings system also produces some skewed results. First of all, the participants all consent to be a part of it, meaning they are fully aware what they watch is calculated into ratings. During sweeps especially, many report via a diary method, writing down and sending in what they watch. This often leads people, who for some reason want to look good to the people at Nielsen, to under-report watching daytime soaps and game shows and to over-report watching evening news and prime time shows. More people write down the shows they feel they should watch, which could just be the already-popular shows, or, more often, the shows that make them look smarter.

There’s also no system for monitoring viewership from non-home locations. Dorms across the country go untapped, meaning that those college-age TV fans who report to Nielsen live at home. This misrepresents our demographic’s opinion; those of us in college may enjoy different programming than those young adults living at home.

Now, not using Nielsen would not necessarily lead to a lineup full of critically acclaimed, clever series. Network executives know by now what succeeds and what doesn’t, and they may still try to reach the mindless masses who sit down to watch VH1 dating reality shows every night. But while the execs may have a good guess, they can’t produce any numbers to show it except the ratings given by critics. And this is where the advertisers come in.

Advertisers need numbers, or at least they should. You want to get your name attached to something popular. But maybe, just maybe, in a time when there were no numerical system to measure popularity, advertisers would go to the next best thing (or, arguably, the better thing) by targeting the shows that get positive critical response. It can be clearly measured and compared, and since it’s really money that decides whether a show can continue or not, advertisers following critics leads to a more natural selection in the TV world.

I would be remiss to make this point without mentioning every TV writer’s mainstay: “Arrested Development.” Each time it won an Emmy, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences was thanked for honoring the best show that everyone refused to watch. Maybe if we take a little break from Nielsen, the next great show won’t meet the same premature end.

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