We’re All On TV Now

nielsen-tv-ratingsI just got an email request from my internet service provider asking me to rate the service call I received yesterday. As far as I know he did a good job but only time will tell whether the problem is fixed. These rating requests are becoming more frequent and they are an indicator that we all have ratings now. Not very long ago the only people who had to worry about ratings were in radio and television. In broadcasting “the book” is everything. The book ostensibly tells potential advertisers how many people, when, and of what sort listen to or watch your broadcast. The higher your ratings, the more ad revenue your program can generate. The lower your ratings, the shorter your run. Broadcasters are constantly searching for ways to “give the people what they want.” They are constantly searching for ways to improve their ratings. The pressure is immense to succeed right away. 25 years ago a program might be given a year or two to find its legs, as it were, and find an audience. Today, however, programs (especially on TV) are evaluated immediately, sometimes via “overnights” (a snapshot of how the program did in the top TV markets last night).

Find measurable approval or die. It’s a vicious world. Find yourself in a bad time slot or with a bad adjacency (i.e., next to a program that draws a different audience or that has lower ratings) and you may be cancelled. Broadcasters study ways to manipulate the ratings—it’s more difficult to do with electronic ratings. Major market radio stations used to lie to listeners about the time (by a minute or two) to get them to write down certain information in their ratings journals, which, in turn, produced higher ratings by creating false impressions about how long people listened. Broadcasters study ratings to find those things that generate the best response in the desired demographic (typically 25–54; the demographic said to have the highest disposable income combined with the highest readiness to spend it). How do 27-year old males respond to this news anchor? One of the test questions well-known in the TV news business is not fit for print in a family space. Flunk the test and you’re on the phone with your agent looking for the next gig.

Electronic media allow companies to get instant feedback from customers or clients. Teachers hand out course evaluations every semester. Television ratings are determined by the Nielsen box. Radio used to be measured by “the book” but now it is measured by PPMs (portable people meters), a type of instant, electronic response to broadcasts. It has created a shakeup in radio. Shows that were thought to have high ratings, didn’t do as well with PPMs. Shows thought to have lower ratings got a bump.

Once only broadcasters faced ratings. Now, however, we’re all on TV, as it were. We all have ratings. Twitter users have followers and re-tweets. Facebook users get “likes.” Bloggers have “hits” The quantifiable is the real, the real is quantifiable. In such circumstances, people make rational choices. They do those things that tend to increase ratings, the indication of widespread approval. Male newscasters get hair plugs. Female newscasters wear more provocative clothing. Early TV reporters came from print and radio journalism and they weren’t always handsome. Today, well, watch the “news.” The lights are brighter. The graphics are more intense. The segments are shorter, lighter. When was the last time you saw coverage of your city council on your local TV news?

In our age of social media, everyone is subject to constant evaluation and criticism. We’re in a period of adjustment. We’re all public figures now. Make a mistake on Twitter and it can “go viral” and you’ll be forced to issue a public apology, as if you’re the Prime Minister of France. The new social media context for our lives is changing education. Students can now rate teachers online (PPMs for teachers do exist). Teachers are adjusting their approach to teaching. My education was shaped by my coaches and teachers and they, in turn, were shaped by their experiences. For many of them, World War II, the Korean War, or Vietnam (and the Cold War) were their defining experiences. There was a quasi-military character to public education in the 60s and into the early 70s. We lined up. We marched. We did what we were told, when we were told, the way we were told. If we didn’t we faced corporal punishment. Our grade school and Jr High principals had switches and paddles and they used them, on us. They didn’t seem to care what we thought of them. They knew that we didn’t know anything and wouldn’t be able to appreciate what we had learned until much later. They endured our scorn for a future, usually unseen payoff.

Today, now that we all need “good numbers” we can no longer wait for students to figure out five years from now why they were taught what they were. Teachers are no longer rewarded for causing students to stretch, to learn, to experience occasional intellectual or spiritual pain. That’s bad for ratings. Now, teachers must give students what the latter think they need or face the possibility of bad ratings. It’s a problem. When ratings, rather than truth or facts are the first consideration, perhaps the teacher will not challenge students. Remember, all the children are above average. Students in the system today (e.g., Millennials, 18–34) have been told all their lives that they are the best and brightest, even if they weren’t. Who dares disabuse the self-esteemed in an era of instant ratings? Any teacher who doesn’t get ratings will find herself in counseling. The idea that the ignorant get to tell the learned what the learned ought to teach the ignorant, is, of course, completely backward.

For pastors this is an even greater challenge. Let him get crosswise with the wrong leading layman and a minister’s life might change quickly. Ministers are people too. They want approval and they do things to get it. They sense the sorts of sermons of which people approve (usually law in the form of detailed advice). “Good sermon pastor!“ is a better rating than “Good morning pastor.” Approval or the lack thereof can cause subtle shifts in what is said or left unsaid.

The Apostle Paul understood. He spoke to this problem directly:

For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ (Gal 1:10)

Paul understood the dynamic perfectly. We are servants, slaves of those whom we must please. If we must please humans then we belong to them. We are owned by them. We must do what they want, when they want it, the way they want it. If, however, we belong to Christ, if we are Christ’s servants, if we have been ordained by Christ, sent by Christ, then we are Christ’s. We announce God’s Word to God’s people but we do it for Christ. We are for the people, i.e., for their advantage, for their well-being, for their salvation but not for their approval.

As he suggests in this verse and goes on the explain in the following verses, when Paul was under the law for God’s approval, he sought the approval of men. Now, however, that by God’s unconditional favor alone (sola gratia), through trusting in Christ alone (sola fide), who alone has fulfilled God’s holy law for his people, Paul is irrevocably accepted by God as perfectly righteous, he is no longer a slave to ratings. It is not as if he can be callous toward people or morally careless—God forbid! He is, however, a wholly-owned property of Jesus Christ, who loved him and gave his life for him. For this reason Paul is bold. He’s willing to risk disapproval, bad ratings, because he serves Christ. Notice too where his freedom leads—not to abuse of the Galatian congregation but to truth, grace, and graciousness in Christ. Paul was truly free because he knew whom and what he served.

If you’re in Christ, you’re free—not to be lawless but to be lawful, not for acceptance with God but in light of your free acceptance by God, in Christ. Pastor, you belong to the Chief Shepherd. You work for him. You’re carrying his message to his flock and they, even though they don’t know it, are counting on you to set aside your need for their approval, for the sake of God’s approval of you, earned for you by Christ.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Scott,

    You know, don’t you, that by responding with another Dylan tune you’ve nudged me right into an all-Dylan-all-Saturday music day?

    Who’s complaining?

  2. Who needs a Nielsen box? Not Netflix. With their streaming video, they know exactly which account streams what video and when, and even at what times they pause they pause (or give up on the film).

    Sorry, Jack Miller, but I have no Dylan allusion to offer.

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