When I say Mad Men sucks, I’m of course not talking about the excellence of the content. I’m talking about the number of people who actually watch the show, compared to the combination of its consistent quality and other-worldly media coverage. In the weeks leading up to the return of the show, Don Draper and his crew have been covered and analyzed from every conceivable angle, from the historical accuracy of the ads to the subtle linguistic errors of the characters. All the buzz from magazine covers to the Internet would make one assume Sunday’s premiere marked the return of one of television’s most-watched shows. But over the past seasons, only about 3 million people actually tune in to watch an episode of Mad Men. To put that number in perspective: Nine million people watch Jersey Shore, 8 million watch The Closer, and 7 million watch Pawn Stars.
Salon’s Willa Paskin looks at some the reasons why we’re obsessed with Mad Men in her piece, TV’s Greatest Luxury Good. The core of Paskin’s argument is that the show makes us feel “smart and stylish.” I think that’s part of it, but we’re also seeing an example of what I call the Apple Effect. Before the introduction of the iPod, not that many people in the general population used Apple computers. But even back then, every product Apple released, or even just tweaked, resulted in an enormous amount of media coverage (especially considering only about 2% of us were using the products). Why? Because a large percentage of journalists used Macs. People who wrote the news wrote it on Macs, so Macs news got a lot of coverage. That’s part of what we’re seeing with Mad Men. The media coverage is driven not by how many people are watching but by which people are watching. That, and the fact that we all sort of long for a time when it was still considered appropriate to have our young children mix us a martini.