Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Buried lead

March 7, 2005

What Do the Prisoners Watch?

If only Nielsen measured inmates' viewing habits, 'Cops' might top its ratings charts.

Carl Bialik

A Wall Street Journal article on TV viewing that goes unmeasured by Nielsen soberly analyzes the effect on advertising for shows with large undetected audiences, like college students who watch "The O.C."

It's all well-reported and interesting, but the following tidbit in the 12th paragraph made me laugh out loud:

Fox thinks ratings for its reality series "Cops" would soar if Nielsen monitored prison viewing—not that prisoners are a demographic sought by advertisers ..."

Unanswered questions abound. I wonder what a "Cops" prison viewing is like. Do the inmates cheer for the perps? And what else would make the prison top 10? "Law & Order," anyone? If I were locked up, I'd rather spend my TV viewing time watching a happy place far from my reality—like, perhaps, "The O.C." It's also worth considering which advertisers might like the prison demographic—Bail bondsmen? Employment agencies? Law firms?

Prison TV access can have other, unintended consequences. English prisoners have had access to personal TV sets, an experiment which reduced prisoners' visits to the gym and library, not surprisingly (the Independent, May 2001). You'll have to pay for the whole article, but here's a preview, which sounds like it was ripped from the pages of the Onion: "The board based its report on the prison's A-wing. It said a high proportion of the wing's inmates had previously made use of the prison library, with 173 out of 200 men visiting on one day last year. But it said that 'these numbers dropped alarmingly from November onwards with the advent of in-cell television'. The board contrasted this with the D-wing, where inmates have battery-operated sets. Because they have to pay for their batteries from prison earnings, prisoners watch far less television."

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.







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Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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