No Right Or Wrong Answers. But Plenty Of Unanswerable Questions

Make no mistake about it, these are stressful times.  Whether one looks at a thermometer, their devices or the occasional banner headline on what remaining newspapers of consequence still exist, it’s increasingly difficult to find something to absorb that doesn’t possess the ability to raise one’s blood pressure.

But, occasionally, something does pop up on one of my feeds that is both interesting and seems to have already provoked a great deal of back and forth amongst a goodly number of respected peers and experts who, for better or worse, had enough time on their hands to weigh in.

This aggregation of what appears to be a dozen publicly available qualitative rankers attempts to give some sort of definitive answer to a perpetually burning question: what’s the best TV show of all time?   It’s a question that often gets answered on special occasions such as the end of a century or a milestone birthday for an entertainment-centric publication.  I know I’m guilty of having used results of those kind of lists to contribute to several public relations campaigns for various shows I’ve worked on over the years.  And in a world where clickbait is all the more desired, and sometimes the very foundation of the business model driving a publication or site, these sort of “embrace debate” lists are all the more prevalent, often being accepted under the umbrella category of “research”.

Except when you get a whole lot of researchers involved, the debate reveals some uncomfortable truths about what way too many who remain in positions of power and influence consider to be legitimate ways to arrive at what they would contend should be an empirical conclusion.   In an industry that has been empowered and now defers almost blindly to algorithms and data dumps to make critical business decisions, it’s unsurprising that someone thought this was a worthy project to embark upon.

The person who shared this on social media is an esteemed and auspiced executive who specifically spent years with networks that thrived on the embracing of pop culture.   I dare say this person has probably watched or at least is familiar with far more of the shows on this list than I.  But even this person offered his caveats right off the top:

Interesting aggregation of 10 or so public shows ratings systems — though mostly user and critic review data…there are some with only one season that have yet to really prove their bonafides (sic)…it really has a recency bias…(o)n the topic of overall data quality, it’s interesting to see the variance from the different sources on a show by show level – seems pretty subjective.

As you can tell, this person’s a lot kinder and gentler about these issues than moi.

Television history now spans more than three-quarters of a century.  There have literally been thousands of shows produced in the last decade alone.  I defy anyone, even the most impassioned and couch potato-like professional reviewer, to swear on a stack of Bibles they’ve seen at least one episode of even the 50 that rose to the top of this list.  Personally, and I’ve been around a lot longer and sadly have had way more free time of lately to catch up, I top out at 38, and have seen multiple episodes of merely half.   Depending upon your age, location and lifestyle, your personal sphere of influence that would be drawn from to produce a rating is widely disparate from another’s.

And as any researcher in any field would assert, opt-in panels of any kind are inherently biased.  Much like Yelp! or a talent competition like AMERICAN IDOL, those that are motivated enough to actually have an opinion consititute any one sample.  The voice and the size of the “meh”–which if one looks at the frequency distribution of actual viewership in any era makes up the majority of any one show’s aggregated audience–is virtually non-existent.

And do note that, much like our esteemed but sometimes elitist friends and ex-colleagues at FX often forget, there’s an awful lot of unscripted television that gets watched and loved that somehow didn’t bubble anywhere near the top of these lists.  One only wonders if folks had been prompted with even the reminder that such shows are eligible where they may have landed.

Indeed, a VARIETY! Top 100 shows list generated at the end of last year by no less than 20 of its reporters and reviewers, produced six such examples (including two from syndication, a source that somehow also missed out on this “definitive” list), perhaps seven if you consider MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD as more extemporaneous than not.

So as more and more comments were added in the piling on of research purists who have made our livings and made our companies billions by actually ascribing to a series of standards and guidelines that have made the not-inconsequential investment of time and money worth their while, the ensuing rhetoric came closer to my level of disdain:

In general says more about the sources than the shows themselves. And nothing wrong — and lots interesting! — in aggregating the sources, but the title “Best…of All Time” invites us all to call “bull…Unqualified aggregated social media opinions…. How much of what passes for research these days is essentially this? Certainly all the ‘research’ in every every management consultant deck I’ve ever seen.

The author actually offered a viable way that something like this can be conducted without relying on spirited debate in a Penske publication office:

I’d start w a nationally (or internationally) representative quant survey asking people “name your top 3 shows all time”… and if you collect enough data on your sample, you can cut the replies all kinds of interesting ways. Then there are lots of layers you can get into with qualitative….

I’ll offer that it wouldn’t be the worst idea to borrow a page from the Baseball Hall of Fame and perhaps produce a subset from a “seniors’ committee” that actually acknowledges the existence and worthiness of a lot more shows that began in a year not beginning with a 2.   Given how many British shows made this particular list, and knowing full well how streaming platforms are now embracing content with global appeal, particularly as they are now selling advertising against them, I’d personally love to also include an “international committee” that would include folks with backgrounds and familarity in Asia (and I include Israel in that region) and other European countries.  Not only for their insights on homegrown shows, but how they rank and rate American shows based on their reception in those territories.

And yes, I would also like to add a couple of quantitative layers.  Not empirical audiences, mind you, but relative audiences, effectively showing how shows rated Nielsen-wise against those of their era.  Eras could be divided by how many broadcast networks existed, when pay and basic cable networks reached both scale and influence and, of course, when Netflix and subsequent streamers began to change the landscape.

Sure, it’s a lot of work.  But, as you can tell, there’s more than a few truly qualified people out there that wouldn’t mind contributing to something more definitive and perhaps worthy of being sold to companies that are trying to figure out what to do next and are increasingly cutting internal resources to do so.  Yes, Davids Ellison and Zaslav, I’m looking directly at both of you, and that’s just for starters.

I’m sure the intent of the original aggregator of this list wasn’t to rile up experienced professionals.  And yes, as many others who commented on it conceded, this is indeed a fun exercise.  It certainly sparked some spirited and informed defenses of personal preferences, ones I sorely wish could be shared at something resembling a convention or a reunion.

Just don’t try and call it research.

Until next time…


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