The Sad Truth About TV Ratings

The ratings for the latest Fringe episode were released this morning, and to fans’ dismay, they were down for the second week in a row. And with it came the usual complaints about Nielsen, and I just got bothered by how much hot air was being spewed, so I wanted to make a general post about TV ratings.

Nielsen ratings matter: Advertisers pay for ad time based on Nielsen’s 18-49 ratings. Advertising is what keeps network television shows on air. That’s reality. Based on research, advertisers have figured out that the 18-49 demographic will optimize revenue and are intently focused on it. Is it the right way to look at ratings? It doesn’t matter because that’s what advertisers believe.

DVR isn’t that great (for ratings, at least): DVR viewing is better than nothing, but there are lots of problems with it as well. With DVR, people can flip through ads, thus there is little benefit to advertisers. What is important for advertiser is C3, which includes both live viewing and viewing of commercials on DVR within three days (and if you look at the numbers, the change between live and C3 is minimal).

Sampling works: In an incredulous, angry tone, “How can several thousand boxes determine what 300 million+ Americans watch?!?!” Well, if you took a statistics class or looked on the internet, you’d know you can extrapolate the numbers to get a somewhat accurate look at the entire country. And if The Nielsen Company was really up to funny business, wouldn’t at least one network complain and present solid evidence?

It’s a business: Television executives aren’t out to make you happy. They aren’t out there to produce good television. Television executives, primarily, are there to make money. And when good shows and lots of money happen to coincide, everyone’s happy. When it doesn’t, everyone’s mad. I’m sure they feel bad, or threatened, when mail, email, or various items flood in to get a show renewed, but the bottom line is always most important.

The current business model won’t change overnight: This is a very important point everyone has to understand. Would it be optimal if every household had a Nielsen box? Yes. Would it be optimal if legal online viewing had more weight? Yes. It’s not a perfect system. But an absolutely change will not happen quickly. Yes, the business model will have to change eventually–and is already changing–as more people switch to other forms of viewing, but it’s not broken right now to the point where disaster will happen next month or even in a year. There’s lots of money in the system and completely overturning it is very dangerous.

I don’t want to sound like a cynic who wants to make people feel bad, but those are simply the facts. They’re not easy to swallow. I get bothered when shows I like get canceled and I might spend a couple days grumbling. But everyone has to realize that television shows get canceled all the time–and they get created all the time. Wait long enough and there will be a show you like that gets great ratings.

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