This week’s exercise in critical thinking: examining the ways in which the writer of a purportedly factual article can subtly sway your opinion.
I really geeked out on this blog post. You have been warned.
The Case Study: Alex Welch’s weekly articles on late night television ratings
If you ever search for “Late Night Ratings,” you’ll turn up article after article written by someone named Alex Welch for a website called TV by the Numbers. He or she publishes one such article a week. Here were some recent headlines at the time I started working on this post a few weeks ago:
- Late-night ratings, Feb 26 – Mar 2, 2018: ‘The Tonight Show’ Returns Are Up
- Late-night ratings, Jan 29 – Feb 2, 2018: ‘Tonight Show’ Holds Steady, ‘Kimmel’ Ticks Up
- Late-night ratings, Jan 22-26, 2018: ‘Late Show’ and ‘Tonight Show’ dip
- Late-night ratings, Jan 1-5, 2016: ‘The Tonight Show’ encores lead, ‘Late Show’ returns
You would think, reading these titles, that “The Tonight Show” is the first and last word in late night. A little cursory research reveals that there are, in fact, a lot of shows in the late night category: “The Late Show,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “Late Night,” “Late Late Show,” “The Daily Show,” and “Last Call”, just to name a few.
Still, Fallon’s show is by far the most featured name in the TV By the Numbers article titles on the subject. It’s certainly the most heavily emphasized if word count within those articles is taken into consideration.
In fact, based on the date I started writing this article in early March, Alex Welch had written only two articles on late night ratings in the previous three months that did not headline “The Tonight Show.”
One was the January 19, 2018 article, “Late-night ratings Jan 8-12, 2018: ‘The Daily Show’ ticks up.'” The article devotes its most words – and its opening paragraph – to Jimmy Fallon. The Daily Show gets a short sentence at the end.
The other was the January 23, 2018 article, “Late-night ratings Jan 15-19, 2018: Late Show with Stephen Colbert Rises.” Once again, it’s Fallon heavy and Fallon front-loaded, while the “Late Show’s” rise, presumably the point of the article, was buried mid-sentence, mid-article in the second paragraph, and just as quickly dismissed as having “ticked up to a .50 after taking a hit the week before.”
Weird, amirite? I mean, who cares this much, and this exclusively, about Jimmy Fallon’s ratings, besides the man himself?
Comparing TV by the Numbers to Other News Articles During The Same Time Period
The first thing I asked myself is whether Jimmy Fallon’s ratings are legitimately dominating the news cycle. In order to decide this, let’s check out what other publications were running concurrently on the issue.
A quick, generalized search of the Google News aggregator (again, done a few weeks ago, when I first started this blog post) for late night ratings turned up the following (in addition to a flood of TV by the Numbers, of course), in the order that I found them:
- Headline News, March 7: Overnight Ratings: Colbert Hits 2-Month High for Oprah, Justin Hartley Episode
- Media Post, February 12: ‘Colbert’ Gains in Late Night as Political Comedy Reigns
So, not much specifically about Fallon.
I then attempted a search for Fallon specifically. If you search for Fallon specific ratings articles in the Google News aggregator, you get things like “Songversations, Lip Flips, and Low Ratings: Lessons from a Week of Watching Jimmy Fallon,” on the Ringer, or “Jimmy Fallon Tops Colbert for the First Time Since Last June, Thanks to Olympics,” (February 13) over on The Wrap.
So which is it? Is Jimmy Fallon the king of late night, or just the king of Alex Welch’s heart?
Examining the Evidence: Subtle Persuasions
There are a number of ways in which this author presents ratings information which, intentionally or not, can sway the reader’s perspective as to whether the shows discussed are successful.
The Importance of Article Titles:
Alex Welch’s article titles subtly direct our interpretation of the ratings presented in the article based on whether a show is mentioned, how often it is mentioned, and order of information presented.
In my sampling of about three months of TV by the Numbers articles, “The Tonight Show” is mentioned in more article titles than any other late night show. Since these articles are purportedly about ratings, the author is implicitly stating that “The Tonight Show” is the show most worthy of mention, and therefore either the biggest mover of the week, or the most influential.
Additionally, any time an Alex Welch TV by the Numbers ratings headline is shared by two late night shows, and one of them is “The Tonight Show,” the show order is presented thusly:
If the headline is about two shows rising in the ratings: “The Tonight Show” is mentioned first, and the other show is mentioned second.
If the headline is about two shows sinking in the ratings: the other show is mentioned first, and “The Tonight Show” is mentioned second.
The effect of this tactic is to emphasize “The Tonight Show”‘s appearance of success by mentioning it first, or to minimize the appearance of its failures in the mind of the viewer by mentioning it second.
Leading the Audience Through Order Of Content and Word Count:
The writer of these ratings articles presents content in the same order and manner in every article:
Jimmy Fallon’s “The Tonight Show” on NBC is always discussed in the first paragraph. The first paragraph is generally the longest. Mr. Fallon’s show is granted one to three sentences. More words are usually spent discussing Mr. Fallon’s show than any other show in the article.
Sometimes this first paragraph closes with a mention of the second tier of network late night shows (“The Late Late Show with James Corden” and “Late Night with Seth Meyers.”)
The second paragraph of the article is shared by the two other major network late night shows, Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show” on CBS, and Jimmy Kimmel’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” on ABC. The second paragraph is smaller than the first paragraph. These two hosts are usually given one to two sentences shared between them.
Remaining paragraphs are one to two short sentences long, and address any number of other late night shows, such as shows by Conan O’Brien or Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.”
What’s the point of this structure? I don’t work there, so I can’t speak to the motivations of either writer or website. I do know that in law school, when learning to write persuasively, we were taught to front load the information we thought was most critical to our argument, and work backwards towards that which was least important.
Alex Welch’s adherence to this order and word emphasis tells me that he/she and/or TV by the Numbers either believes, or is arguing that: (1) The ratings of Jimmy Fallon’s “The Tonight Show” are the most important; (2) “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and the “Late Show” are of secondary importance; and (3) all other hosts and shows are of diminishing import.
This is in keeping with the way the website titles its articles, with its heavy emphasis on Mr. Fallon’s show.
Word Choice Matters:
Although these articles present like factual pieces, the information is sometimes presented in a leading way.
For example, consider how the ratings for Fallon and Colbert are discussed in the January 23rd article, which, per its title, is one of the few dedicated to a non-Fallon show (“‘Late Night’ show with Stephen Colbert Rises.”)
“The Tonight Show” was described, in the longer first paragraph, as “able to continue its ratings uptick for the second week in a row.” It rose two hundredths from the week before.
The smaller second paragraph mentions, halfway through, that “CBS’s ‘Late Show with Stephen Cobert’ ticked up to a 0.50 after taking a hit the week before.”
This presentation is interesting for two reasons:
First, compare how the shows’ relative successes are described: “The Tonight Show” is described as being “able to continue” a rating rise. This language emphasizes its past success, and bolsters the idea that this week’s success is part of a trend.
The “Late Show”‘s success, on the other hand, is coupled with the caveat that the rise follows a “hit” the week before. This language implies that the “Late Show”‘s rise is perhaps a one-off, or maybe a market correction, rather than a trend upwards.
If we back up two weeks, to the ratings that set up this narrative, we get some additional insights into the trend. The article from two weeks before makes considerable hay (nearly half the article) out of the fact that Fallon “still managed to land on top,” despite being on hiatus, while the ‘Late Show’ returned and “as a result rose considerably,” and Fallon also “climbed back up.”
So another angle on the story of this trend is that, two weeks ago, Colbert and Kimmel saw a rise in demographic viewership due to Fallon’s continued holiday hiatus; Fallon in turn experienced a corresponding decline (while still maintaining a demographic lead), due to being in reruns. Fallon returned the following week, reclaiming his normal viewership, resulting in a rise in Fallon viewership, and corresponding decline in Colbert and Kimmel viewership.
Two sides to the same story, but the one Welch and TV by the Numbers elected, and the one they usually elect, is the one that pumps up “The Tonight Show.”
Which Ratings to Focus On:
TV by the Numbers focusses exclusively on the Adults 18-49 demo rating. This demographic is said to be particularly interesting to advertisers.
It is interesting to note, though, that the website never brings up any other rating in their assessments. In particular, it never mentions that other, oft discussed rating: total viewership. Mr. Fallon lags behind Mr. Colbert by over a million viewers in total viewership. Mr. Kimmel lags behind Mr. Fallon by varying degrees week to week, but by a lot less than a million viewers. For whatever reason, TV by the Numbers declines to discuss the movements of these numbers.
Perhaps this is because total viewership is not newsworthy? Other publications disagree. A plain Google search for late night ratings turns up the following (after the TV by the Numbers articles):
- Adweek, January 25th: How Stephen Colbert is Widening his Late-Night Lead and Doubling Down on Trump.
- Cinema Blend: How Colbert and Fallon’s Ratings Have Changed Since the Presidential Election
- New York Times, November 28: A Sharp Decline for Jimmy Fallon’s ‘Tonight Show’
So someone thinks it’s worth discussing.
For more information on the weighting of ratings, the history of the 18-49 demographic, and the sneaky ways in which ratings are manipulated to create the appearance of success, check out this enlightening article on Awful Announcing: How ABC Created the 18-49 Demographic in the 1960s to Lure Advertisers from CBS and NBC.
Investigating the Source
This is often where my trips down the rabbit hole lead. Whenever I come across something that doesn’t pass the sniff test, like these articles from TV by the Numbers, I ultimately go look at the source.
First, I attempted to look into the writer, Alex Welch. The website provides no biographical information on him or her. The name is, itself, pretty commonplace. This avenue of inquiry is a dead end.
Next, I looked at the publishing platform, in this case, website TV by the Numbers. Some minimal internet sleuthing informs me that TV by the Numbers used to be a website called Zap2It. It is part of the Tribune Digital Ventures, part of the Tribune Media Company, an organization in the process of being acquired by Sinclair Media.
Tribune Media is reputed to be center leaning, politically. Sinclair Media, on the other hand, swings right.
Why does this matter? I can think of a few reasons why someone would want to focus so consistently on Jimmy Fallon’s “The Tonight Show”:
(1) Jimmy Fallon is the biggest thing going in late night. I don’t see much support for this. He’s one of the biggest names in late night, but there are two others equally big, based on other people’s coverage, and viewership numbers: Stephen Colbert, and Jimmy Kimmel.
(2) Alex Welch, the writer, is personally most interested in Jimmy Fallon. Maybe. I can’t find any information on Alex Welch.
(3) The publisher has an interest in promoting Fallon. Stephen Colbert and, recently, Jimmy Kimmel, use their platform to support liberal causes like gun control and healthcare. Jimmy Fallon used his to arguably humanize candidate Trump by tousling his hair. If a conservative publisher was seeking to promote a narrative, it seems possible it would want to favor the narrative of public support for the inoffensive, non-political Fallon over the more liberal Kimmel and Colbert.
But what do I know? I’m just a blogger with a minuscule readership.
So Is Jimmy Fallon Objectively the Most Important Person in Late Night Ratings Every Week?
I’m no expert on this issue, so all I can offer is my opinion. It does not appear to me that Jimmy Fallon and his show so dominate the national discourse that they merit the continuous, largely positive, coverage that they are afforded by TV by the Numbers. Mr. Fallon leads the 18-49 demographic, it is true, but lags impressively in total viewership, a metric the site elects never to discuss. Other publications do discuss it, extensively. This strikes me as strange. It’s also notable that other discourse on late night ratings, across a wide array of platforms, is more egalitarian in its coverage. In fact, Mr. Fallon’s name is rarely the focus, except in articles discussing his show’s decline.
Also, Who is Alex Welch?
Is Alex Welch a person? Is Alex Welch a computer program designed to churn out articles based on certain parameters and biases supported by the publisher? Who knows? On some level, who cares? All that matters is that Alex Welch and TV by the Numbers are among the most prominent promulgators of late night ratings information on the American internet, and they seem to have a real hard-on for Jimmy Fallon.
In Conclusion: Think Critically, People
Boy, did I go ape-shit on this issue or what? Sometimes, you’ve just got to go down the rabbit hole.
Addendum 1: At this point, you should be asking what are my biases? You have no way of verifying this, of course, but I stipulate that I am not employed by Mr. Colbert, Mr. Fallon, Mr. Kimmel, TV by the Numbers, or anyone else referenced in this article. I will stipulate to being politically liberal.
Addendum 2: My case study involves articles on late night television ratings. I am not particularly invested in late night television. This is likely because I can’t watch it live, having cut the cord a while back. Curse you, Comcast, and your arbitrarily fluctuating rates. I have seen most of the people referenced in this post in clips on youtube.
Addendum 3: A license for use of the image for this article was purchased at Fotolia.