Everyone hears about television ratings, especially now with the whole mess at NBC between Leno and Conan. Ratings are currency for television networks, how they decide what advertisements are worth and, ultimately, how they decide what shows will stay on the air or go to that great television network in the sky.
But how many people really know what television ratings are? Well, I do. So here’s a basic overview of the Nielsen ratings system, so you’ll know what they’re talking about the next time you hear someone mention that NCIS is the top-rated scripted series on television.
So what are ratings?
At their most basic level, ratings measure what percentage of people are viewing a program out of all the people who own televisions in the country. This is not to be confused with shares, which are the percentage of people viewing a program out of all the people whose televisions are on. Advertisers care about ratings. People who make television shows care about shares. Therefore, very few important people care about shares, and we’ll focus this article on ratings.
The ratings system was established in the 1950s by what was then known as Nielsen Media Research and is now known as the Nielsen Company. They were originally collected solely by the diary method, in which the Nielsen Company would send diaries to a sample of people in many different demographics and ask them to write down everything they watched for a week, then return the diaries.
Nielsen now has a more technological method that they use in some areas of the country. They are called Set Meters, which are boxes that sit on the television set that monitor what is on it at all times. These are considered more accurate than the diaries because people can lie about what they watched in the diaries.
In 2005, Nielsen also began measuring digitally recorded programs, as in things your recorded with your DVR or TiVo. Recording a program and watching it later is called time-shifting. Traditionally, Nielsen did not measure these ratings because most people fast forward through the commercials, and advertisers are far more concerned with how many people are watching those. Nielsen found out pretty quickly, however, that measuring this time-shift has a significant impact over which shows are most highly rated.
When are they measured?
Perhaps you’ve heard of sweeps? Sweeps occur every three months. The biggest and best-known ones are in November and February, but there are also ones in May and August. For the audience, these are the times when the shows pull out their best episodes, they’re most exciting cliffhangers, and their most heart-stopping dramas. For television professionals, these are the most important times of the year. That’s when Nielsen processes and analyzes the information they get back from the millions of diaries they’ve received over the past three months. This information is turned over to the networks and advertisers, and they begin to negotiate prices.
How accurate are they?
There are many criticisms of the Nielsen ratings system. Nielsen has been making great strides to try and overcome many of them, but they’re not there yet. The accuracy of the information they’ve gathered is always a problem, even with the Set Meters, because you can never be sure when someone is watching or if they’ve just left the TV on.
Also, the sample used represents on a very small population of the country, leave over 99% of households uninvolved in the process. The statistical equation that was set up has a large margin of error to, which is especially detrimental to local stations, whose programs rarely have enough viewers to show about a 0.0 in the Nielsen system.
Another problem is they have yet to come with a way to measure large viewing areas (such as college dormitories) or Internet viewing, which is steadily becoming the predominant way younger viewers watch television.
That sounds like a lot of negatives. Are there any positives?
Of course, otherwise they wouldn’t use it. The biggest positive is that the Nielsen system is consistent. Programs usually receive similar ratings throughout the weeks. Any drops or raises can be explained by looking at a show’s popularity. There are few big jumps, and the ones that do occur have logical explanations attached to them.
Are all TV shows measured like this?
The short answer? Yes. The long answer? Not really.
There’s a distinction made in television between the broadcast networks and the cable networks. Broadcast networks are the channels you used to be able to get if you had a television with rabbit ears, usually channels 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11 and 13, or something like that. Today, that refers to ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and the CW. Cable channels are everything else (USA, TNT, FX, etc.).
All this was background to saying it’s hard to compare cable network ratings to broadcast network ratings. This is because, until recently, no one really cared about cable ratings. They were always lower than broadcast ratings because, even though most people had cable, many people still only got the basic broadcast networks. With the mandated switch to digital that happened last summer, that gap has bridged dramatically. Also, popular opinion that the broadcast networks were the place to go for primetime television is changing.
So… that’s probably more than you ever wanted to know, but I guess you got the basics plus package. Hopefully this has given you a little more appreciation for what it means to say something is a high-rated show on television.
If you have anymore questions, or you just like talking about this, leave me a comment or email me at [email protected]
Sources: Levin, Gary (2006-10-12). “Playback time for Nielsens”. USA Today. p. 1D.
Hollifield, Cheryl (2007). “Ratings.” Lecture. TELE3010H, University of Georgia.