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Why I (More or Less) Trust the Nielsen Ratings

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Written By

February 24th, 2008

We write about ratings all the time and sometimes the ratings for shows that we love aren't so good.   I love 30 Rock, you love Jericho or Moonlight (good news Moonlight fans, it  has the best ratings of all 3!).

Inevitably, we wind up getting comments and e-mail about how flawed, unreliable and untrustworthy the Nielsen counting is. 

I understand it, but after careful consideration and a little bit of research I think people who complain about Nielsen probably are going to need to get over it.

Over time, there will be better data.  Both by Nielsen and others.  More and more data will be available via set-top boxes, but in round numbers, only about 50% of the homes currently have any kind of set-top box. A  significant portion of the viewing population would be excluded by exclusive reliance on set-top box data. 

I don't think Nielsen's approach is perfect, or even close to perfect.  Not perfect by any measure, just like you and just like me.  But you know what?  Just like you and just like me, though we aren't perfect, it's good enough.  The TV networks say it's good enough, and the people buying the advertising time say it's good enough.   

That's right: the people who sell the product that pays for everything and the people who buy the product that pays for everything say it's good enough.  

Bill G. will vouch that sometimes I can be a little crazy.  If you need more references, that's easy for me to compile.  I wanted some anecdotal data so I randomly stopped people in public and pelted them with the following questions:

  • 1. Ever heard of the Super Bowl?
  • 2. What's the Super Bowl about?
  • 3. Ever heard of the Academy Awards/Oscars?
  • 4. What are the Academy Awards/Oscars About?
  • 5. Ever heard of the TV show Jericho?
  • 6. What's Jericho about?
  • 7. Ever heard of the TV show Moonlight?
  • 8. What's Moonlight About?
  • 9. Ever heard of American Idol?
  • 10. What's American Idol about?

I compiled the results.  If  you don't like my results, sorrry.  I don't like that I can't reel in Giselle Bundchen, but I got over it.   Or hopefully will someday soon.

There was 100% awareness of both the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards.  And if I accept  variants of "some sports thingy" as a correct answer, 100% of the people polled knew what the Super Bowl was.  This was not true in the case of the Oscars where although everyone had heard of it, only 88% could correctly state it was an awards show for the movie industry.

14% of the respondents said they'd heard of Jericho, but only 43% of that 14% could actually explain what Jericho was about.

Only 6% said they'd ever heard of Moonlight, of those 67% were able to correctly describe what the show is about.

But when it came to American Idol, 100% had heard of it, and if I accept "some talent show thingy" as an answer, 100% knew what the show was about.

If you want to complain about how networks decide on programming, timeslots, time and money spent on promotion - that's all fair and probably even productive for the networks if they're checking in.  

If you want to question the values of the United States of America based on what programs attract the most viewers, that's a values discussion that doesn't really have anything to do with Nielsen.  We're fine with people talking about that here, but I find that sort of discussion more enjoyable if you involve beer.

My survey was fairly random.  I didn't show up at the advance Jericho screening at Wondercon and poll the people there or Jericho would have fared dramatically better. That would have been a completely inaccurate sampling, too.  

As imperfect as Nielsen's sampling may be, with any and all  flaws, I still trust it more than my own random sampling.  But even if I didn't, it wouldn't mater.  It's good enough for the advertisers and the broadcast networks.  Until any of that changes, I bet on inertia.  Nothing will change, including the complaints about Nielsen when it comes to low-rated shows and shows on the bubble.

 
  • Seymour

    What is an advertisers motivation to sponsor a show with low ratings? This would be the same as giving a sales presentation to an empty boardroom. There’s no point. Advertisers, broadcasters, and TV show producers need to work together to come up with innovative ideas to market an audience that no longer wants to watch commercials. (Ex: 20% off email coupon when you download this show…Sells the show and markets the product.)

  • Seymour

    What is an advertisers motivation to sponsor a show with low ratings? This would be the same as giving a sales presentation to an empty boardroom. There’s no point. Advertisers, broadcasters, and TV show producers need to work together to come up with innovative ideas to market an audience that no longer wants to watch commercials. (Ex: 20% off email coupon when you download this show…Sells the show and markets the product.)

  • http://tvbythenumbers.com Bill Gorman

    Richard,

    The Academy Awards may predate television, but the Super Bowl does not, it has been televised every year.

  • http://tvbythenumbers.com Robert Seidman

    My survey was not intended to be valid or compare any particular show to any other particular show.

    none of the results struck me as particularly anomalous. Awareness and viewers correlate, but they are not equal. I know what AI is and what it’s about. I don’t watch it. Same for Big Brother 9. Again, while generally higher awarness correlates to the higher ratings, you can’t say awareness = viewers and I wasn’t at all implying that. I was inferring that if Jericho had higer awareness, it would probably have more viewers.

    I think the chances are good that the only thing my survey proved was…nothing. :)

  • Seymour

    What is an advertisers motivation to sponsor a show with low ratings? This would be the same as giving a sales presentation to an empty boardroom. There’s no point. Advertisers, broadcasters, and TV show producers need to work together to come up with innovative ideas to market an audience that no longer wants to watch commercials. (Ex: 20% off email coupon when you download this show…Sells the show and markets the product.)

  • http://www.copywriteink.blogspot.com Richard Becker

    Bill,

    Thank you. My mistake. I was too young to remember right. Given I'm a Wisc. native, I should have known that. It was simultaneously televised by CBS and NBC.

    Robert, exactly. :) And Seymour, here's among many: psychographics.

    Best,
    Rich

  • http://www.copywriteink.blogspot.com Richard Becker

    Bill,

    Thank you. My mistake. I was too young to remember right. Given I'm a Wisc. native, I should have known that. It was simultaneously televised by CBS and NBC.

    Robert, exactly. :) And Seymour, here's among many: psychographics.

    Best,
    Rich

  • kayarn

    the only thing neilsen really doesnt have a grip on is young people. people in that transitional “college to settling down stage,” which sometimes takes up to 15 years, are often nomadic and its hard to get a set address for them and for them to be a part of the random neilsen sampling.

    that does account for a rather large portion of the 18-30ish population, and i know they recently added the small college kids living in dorms thing, but its still not the best.

    i have the feeling they over sample older people, hence the higher ratings for cbs shows. but really, older people do watch more tv. they are tired and want to sit on the couch and wait to fall asleep. younger people are generally out at night or doing something active, and only make time to watch a few shows here and there.

    i guess with the advent of dvrs and increased internet downloads, thats changing. but advertisers dont exactly pay for that as much as l+sd viewing, do they?

  • kayarn

    the only thing neilsen really doesnt have a grip on is young people. people in that transitional “college to settling down stage,” which sometimes takes up to 15 years, are often nomadic and its hard to get a set address for them and for them to be a part of the random neilsen sampling.

    that does account for a rather large portion of the 18-30ish population, and i know they recently added the small college kids living in dorms thing, but its still not the best.

    i have the feeling they over sample older people, hence the higher ratings for cbs shows. but really, older people do watch more tv. they are tired and want to sit on the couch and wait to fall asleep. younger people are generally out at night or doing something active, and only make time to watch a few shows here and there.

    i guess with the advent of dvrs and increased internet downloads, thats changing. but advertisers dont exactly pay for that as much as l+sd viewing, do they?

  • http://www.wolferiver.wordpress.com grapeshot

    Having participated in the SaveFarscape campaign five years ago, I can sympathize with the Jericho fans. We, too, agonized over what the Nielsen numbers meant. How could a sample of 5000 speak for 112 million households? (Pretty well, it turns out, for network shows, less well for small cable shows pulling a ratings number of less than 2.0.) Could the Nielsen numbers be scammed by the viewers? (Not so easily, it tunrs out. Consider that there's about one Nielsen household for every 25,000 households, and you've got quite a chore trying to find the one in your neighborhood.) Just exactly HOW representative are the Nielsen samples? (There's no telling, as this is a deep dark secret that only Nielsen knows and they're not sharing that information.) However, at the end of the day, there's no way around the fact that the Nielsen numbers are THE ONLY game there is. Whether we liked them or not, that's the way shows on commercial television are measured.

    My advice to people who are trying to save their show is that you need to figure out how the industry works, and then find what lever they need for their show. Be prepared to discover that there's no lever that will do the job. For our show, the lever turned out to be to find financing. The show's numbers weren't really that bad, but the network and the show's production house had serious cash flow problems. (Naturally, this had to be ferreted out; neither entity was going to broadcast that out loud.) Getting new investors got us our miniseries which closed the story. But it also took determination on the part of the fans to leave no stone unturned, and the show's producers, who believed that they could still make money off of their property.

    Since the demise of my favorite show, I've become extremely disillusioned — but not with network TV. I think they do a good job of giving the audiences what they want. It's just become very clear that audiences overwhelmingly want to see some poor schlub making a fool of himself on national television, or B list celebrities dancing the meringue. The Nielsen numbers may be wrong, but if so, they're not wrong by that much, and American audiences are getting pretty much what they want. Those of us who want imaginative stories, with plots that confound us, and unstereotypical characters will find slimmer and slimmer pickings.

  • http://www.wolferiver.wordpress.com grapeshot

    Having participated in the SaveFarscape campaign five years ago, I can sympathize with the Jericho fans. We, too, agonized over what the Nielsen numbers meant. How could a sample of 5000 speak for 112 million households? (Pretty well, it turns out, for network shows, less well for small cable shows pulling a ratings number of less than 2.0.) Could the Nielsen numbers be scammed by the viewers? (Not so easily, it tunrs out. Consider that there's about one Nielsen household for every 25,000 households, and you've got quite a chore trying to find the one in your neighborhood.) Just exactly HOW representative are the Nielsen samples? (There's no telling, as this is a deep dark secret that only Nielsen knows and they're not sharing that information.) However, at the end of the day, there's no way around the fact that the Nielsen numbers are THE ONLY game there is. Whether we liked them or not, that's the way shows on commercial television are measured.

    My advice to people who are trying to save their show is that you need to figure out how the industry works, and then find what lever they need for their show. Be prepared to discover that there's no lever that will do the job. For our show, the lever turned out to be to find financing. The show's numbers weren't really that bad, but the network and the show's production house had serious cash flow problems. (Naturally, this had to be ferreted out; neither entity was going to broadcast that out loud.) Getting new investors got us our miniseries which closed the story. But it also took determination on the part of the fans to leave no stone unturned, and the show's producers, who believed that they could still make money off of their property.

    Since the demise of my favorite show, I've become extremely disillusioned — but not with network TV. I think they do a good job of giving the audiences what they want. It's just become very clear that audiences overwhelmingly want to see some poor schlub making a fool of himself on national television, or B list celebrities dancing the meringue. The Nielsen numbers may be wrong, but if so, they're not wrong by that much, and American audiences are getting pretty much what they want. Those of us who want imaginative stories, with plots that confound us, and unstereotypical characters will find slimmer and slimmer pickings.

  • http://www.copywriteink.blogspot.com Richard Becker

    Bill,

    Thank you. My mistake. I was too young to remember right. Given I’m a Wisc. native, I should have known that. It was simultaneously televised by CBS and NBC.

    Robert, exactly. :) And Seymour, here’s among many: psychographics.

    Best,
    Rich

  • kayarn

    the only thing neilsen really doesnt have a grip on is young people. people in that transitional “college to settling down stage,” which sometimes takes up to 15 years, are often nomadic and its hard to get a set address for them and for them to be a part of the random neilsen sampling.

    that does account for a rather large portion of the 18-30ish population, and i know they recently added the small college kids living in dorms thing, but its still not the best.

    i have the feeling they over sample older people, hence the higher ratings for cbs shows. but really, older people do watch more tv. they are tired and want to sit on the couch and wait to fall asleep. younger people are generally out at night or doing something active, and only make time to watch a few shows here and there.

    i guess with the advent of dvrs and increased internet downloads, thats changing. but advertisers dont exactly pay for that as much as l+sd viewing, do they?

  • http://www.wolferiver.wordpress.com grapeshot

    Having participated in the SaveFarscape campaign five years ago, I can sympathize with the Jericho fans. We, too, agonized over what the Nielsen numbers meant. How could a sample of 5000 speak for 112 million households? (Pretty well, it turns out, for network shows, less well for small cable shows pulling a ratings number of less than 2.0.) Could the Nielsen numbers be scammed by the viewers? (Not so easily, it tunrs out. Consider that there’s about one Nielsen household for every 25,000 households, and you’ve got quite a chore trying to find the one in your neighborhood.) Just exactly HOW representative are the Nielsen samples? (There’s no telling, as this is a deep dark secret that only Nielsen knows and they’re not sharing that information.) However, at the end of the day, there’s no way around the fact that the Nielsen numbers are THE ONLY game there is. Whether we liked them or not, that’s the way shows on commercial television are measured.

    My advice to people who are trying to save their show is that you need to figure out how the industry works, and then find what lever they need for their show. Be prepared to discover that there’s no lever that will do the job. For our show, the lever turned out to be to find financing. The show’s numbers weren’t really that bad, but the network and the show’s production house had serious cash flow problems. (Naturally, this had to be ferreted out; neither entity was going to broadcast that out loud.) Getting new investors got us our miniseries which closed the story. But it also took determination on the part of the fans to leave no stone unturned, and the show’s producers, who believed that they could still make money off of their property.

    Since the demise of my favorite show, I’ve become extremely disillusioned — but not with network TV. I think they do a good job of giving the audiences what they want. It’s just become very clear that audiences overwhelmingly want to see some poor schlub making a fool of himself on national television, or B list celebrities dancing the meringue. The Nielsen numbers may be wrong, but if so, they’re not wrong by that much, and American audiences are getting pretty much what they want. Those of us who want imaginative stories, with plots that confound us, and unstereotypical characters will find slimmer and slimmer pickings.

  • Phil

    trust me nielsen know what they are doing they have these meters in all the rooms.you could be on the computer or watching t.v.They do not trust you otherwise and they should get some of the sex and violence off the t.v.you know how long it takes to build trust 15 years maybe 25.And we could prove it whenever.

  • Phil

    trust me nielsen know what they are doing they have these meters in all the rooms.you could be on the computer or watching t.v.They do not trust you otherwise and they should get some of the sex and violence off the t.v.you know how long it takes to build trust 15 years maybe 25.And we could prove it whenever.

  • Phil

    trust me nielsen know what they are doing they have these meters in all the rooms.you could be on the computer or watching t.v.They do not trust you otherwise and they should get some of the sex and violence off the t.v.you know how long it takes to build trust 15 years maybe 25.And we could prove it whenever.

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