While they are of tremendous interest to people who buy and sell ads, ratings should have no bearing on the average listener or viewer. Who really cares if 300,000 other kiwis like to watch Rake on a Sunday night just like you? Or that a million others tuned in to watch a dancing dog on NZ's Got Talent? Or that approximately eight other people heard that genius/crazed DJ on 95bFM in the middle of the night who made you snort your milo out your nose.
All that really matters for the listener and the viewer is that there are enough other people who like the same shiz that it keeps getting made.
Still, we can't help but obsess over numbers, and as a measure of things, the latest round of radio ratings are a big deal - for those in the game at least. Around the country on Friday last, champagne corks popped at some stations while managers wept in the toilet cubicles of others.
As has been the case for nearly all of my lifetime, Newstalk ZB sits atop the pile. It dipped out for a brief time back in the 1980s when Paul Holmes replaced model train enthusiast Merv Smith, who was once the king of Auckland radio. Merv was the emperor, aided by his sidekick 'McHairy', a talking Scottish spider who must remain the most improbable radio star this side of Michael Laws. It was 1ZB back then, a music station, but the suits had brought back the 'newstalk' format from America and rightly divined that it was the future. Merv moved to Radio i, and for a time held his grip on the top spot. But Holmes, like Hillary before him, soon knocked the bastard off. The story was even immortalised in a documentary, which you can watch here.
Cut to 2014 and ZB still holds that spot, with Hosking enthroned as the new Holmes, complete with the 7pm TV One show and a taste for fancy cars. I hope someone is standing by with the Botox.
Competitors complain that the radio dial remains fused to the spot and the wizened hands of the ageing ZB listeners are too feeble to twist their way to another station. More accurately, they haven't yet figured out how to win over a good chunk of the loyal ZB followers. For Radio Live this must seem like the Hundred Years War, because despite dispatching the talents of Lush, Plunket and Garner into battle, the castle walls remain largely intact, allowing Leighton Smith to toss over the occasional bucket of effluent.
While the other major player in the talk market, RNZ National, also has a huge audience, they don't partake in the ratings. They sell no adverts so what's the point? Their figure is hidden in the 'other' category, and probably makes a fair share of it. Though there are many others who don't play the numbers game; RNZ Concert, numerous ethnic stations, local stations and 95bFM, it's widely believed that the 'others' category is mostly National.
The experts say the latest figures reveal small changes but no real shocks.
But I believe the current round of numbers is screaming out something and that something is NZ IS IN DEEP TROUBLE!
Consider this. A staggering 376,000 kiwis tune in to redden their necks on ZB every week while a staggering 454,000 debase themselves with mindless tunes and tabloid sleaze on The Edge. Worst of all, some 315,000 slip some morphine into their chamomile and drift off to oblivion via The Breeze. I'm no mathematician or theologian, but that's over a million lost souls!
This summation is based purely on the latest 'top of the head' research I just conducted with myself, having not really listened in any depth to the shows in question, and is based purely on prejudice and general bile. You may also know this as the 'gut instinct'.
But is the gut always to be trusted? This week I've been given the task of listening to some the highest rating shows and writing some words about them.
First up I spent a morning with Hosking on Newstalk ZB, my regular breakfast diet - a double act of RNZ National (change channel during the boring bits) and Radio Live (change back during the ads) would have to wait. Within minutes of tuning in you realise that the Hosk is one of slickest talkers on the wireless. He's a motor mouth with good diction who possesses a verbal delivery, that if hooked up right could power half the homes in the country. In fact I wanted to shout, "WHERE'S THE FIRE!" Comparing ZB with National is like comparing people on different types of drugs. If Guyon and Susie are on prescription meds, Hosking has a serious P habit.
As a director of the traffic that exists in the show; the correspondents, the commentators, the Prime Minister, Mike is a master. And, although clearly coloured by the same political stripes as the PM, he's up for some gentle prodding and poking when he sniffs a story. On Monday morning it was regarding the statement by Don Brash that he had promised the leadership to Key after a year or two of premiership, if he won the 2005 election. JK couldn't, as is customary, really remember what Don had said, but didn't remember a clear-cut deal. "I doubt if he would have wanted to give it up if he'd won anyway," he suspected, and given that Brash ran again in 2011, you'd have to agree.
My suspicion is that he wasn't really listening at the time as Don wasn't wearing a shirt. That was the question Mike should have asked, but the pace of the show is such, that before you know it, another ad break is upon you and then you're propelled into an interview or a Royal Round Up, or "Royal Roustabout" as Mike called it, in an unusual slip of the tongue, or was that humour? That's the thing about being a long time listener; you get to know the difference.
I suspect that familiarity not only breeds contempt, it breeds ratings. For me, a switch back to Radio Live at 8.30am - when Hosking's show ended - made me feel more at home. The last part of Lush's show is my favourite, as he talks sport with Hamish McKay and all sorts of nonsense with Hillary Barry. I've come to like McKay's strange way with words, the laugh talking, and that way he seems to chew the words as they leave his mouth. But the 8.45am segment that has Hillary Barry and Lush dealing to the news that's lighting up social media is truly appointment listening. It's made me snort my coffee on more than one occasion. So like all those ZB fans I have my stations, I'm a creature of habit. It'll be hard to prise me away. Still, I'll have go with The Edge and The Breeze and report back.