Cooking the Books for Advertising Dollars

Careful viewers might have noticed. During the last week of 2011, they were not watching “Good Morning America.” Nay, nay. They were watching “Good Morning Amer.” “Good Morning Amer” is a special program and would not be counted in the national Nielsen ratings. The last week of the year also happens to be the lowest rated of the year in terms of viewership. If you can knock that week out of your ratings mix, well, you come close to NBC’s “Today” show, and you can command higher advertising dollars because, well, your show is rated higher. Who couldn’t win the ratings race when you take “Good Morning Amer” out of the race?

Oh, and NBC is not as pure as the driven snow. NBC just goes the opposite way. Brian Williams’ dog of a show, “Rock Center with Brian Williams” got a lovely ratings boost when NBC called the network’s coverage of the January 23rd presidential debate “Rock Center with Brian Williams.” Call a regular show by a different name as a special program and it doesn’t go into the ratings mix. But call a special program that has viewer draw by the name of your regular program, and you get to lop in the double ratings from that night into your otherwise abysmal regular ratings.

Here are the ethical issues. First, unless advertisers are incredibly savvy and up on details, they do not realize they are paying higher rates for something that is an accounting sleight of hand. Second, these networks are relying on a numbers strategy that is nonsustainable. If the shows are not working, the only real solution is fixing the show. You can’t cook the books often enough or long enough keep the ad revenues the same. The networks lull themselves into a false sense of security.

The New York Times reports that many in the industry are worried about the practice but no one is willing to discuss it because it’s the old pot and kettle dialogue. Those who live in glass houses and all. Here’s a summation of ethics in the industry on this issue, from the mouth of a network program executive, “You do everything you can, as long as you can. And then they slap your hand.” These are the same news operations that have covered the scandals in business over the past decade and groused about how they cooked the books thinking that they could keep going. Chuck Prince said the same of the subprime debacle – that as long as the music was playing that he would keep dancing. Dear TV people, the folks in business were doing exactly the same thing you are now doing: Their mantra: Just get those numbers out there and keep it going, even if it is false and misleading. Slaps of the hand in business consisted of jail sentences, owing largely to the fact that it is fraud to lie about your real numbers performance.

About mmjdiary

Professor Marianne Jennings is an emeritus professor of legal and ethical studies from the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, retiring in 2011 after 35 years of teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in ethics and the legal environment of business. During her tenure at ASU, she served as director of the Joan and David Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics from 1995-1999. In 2006, she was appointed faculty director for the W.P. Carey Executive MBA Program. She has done consulting work for businesses and professional groups including AICPA, Boeing, Dial Corporation, Edward Jones, Mattel, Motorola, CFA Institute, Southern California Edison, the Institute of Internal Auditors, AIMR, DuPont, AES, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Motorola, Hy-Vee Foods, IBM, Bell Helicopter, Amgen, Raytheon, and VIAD. The sixth edition of her textbook, Case Studies in Business Ethics, was published in February 2011. The ninth edition of her textbook, Business: lts Legal, Ethical and Global Environment was published in January 2011. The 23rd edition of her book, Business Law: Principles and Cases, will be published in January 2013. The tenth edition of her book, Real Estate Law, will also be published in January 2013. Her book, A Business Tale: A Story of Ethics, Choices, Success, and a Very Large Rabbit, a fable about business ethics, was chosen by Library Journal in 2004 as its business book of the year. A Business Tale was also a finalist for two other literary awards for 2004. In 2000 her book on corporate governance was published by the New York Times MBA Pocket Series. Her book on long-term success, Building a Business Through Good Times and Bad: Lessons from Fifteen Companies, Each With a Century of Dividends, was published in October 2002 and has been used by Booz, Allen, Hamilton for its work on business longevity. Her latest book, The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse was published by St. Martin’s Press in July 2006 and has been a finalist for two book awards. Her weekly columns are syndicated around the country, and her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Reader's Digest. A collection of her essays, Nobody Fixes Real Carrot Sticks Anymore, first published in 1994 is still being published. She has been a commentator on business issues on All Things Considered for National Public Radio. She has served on four boards of directors, including Arizona Public Service (1987-2000), Zealous Capital Corporation, and the Center for Children with Chronic Illness and Disability at the University of Minnesota. She was appointed to the board of advisors for the Institute of Nuclear Power Operators in 2004 and served on the board of trustees for Think Arizona, a public policy think tank. She has appeared on CNBC, CBS This Morning, the Today Show, and CBS Evening News. In 2010 she was named one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Business Ethics by Trust Across America. Her books have been translated into four different languages. She received the British Emerald award for authoring one of their top 50 articles in management publications, chosen from over 15,000 articles. Personal: Married since 1976 to Terry H. Jennings, Maricopa County Attorney’s Office Deputy County Attorney; five children: Sarah, Sam, and John, and the late Claire and Hannah Jennings.
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