Over the next few weeks during the holidays I will be attempting to do a series of posts that will hopefully come together to significantly update our FAQs. As always, consider it a work and progress. See updates at bottom based on feedback.
A common occurrence on our site, particularly with our overnight ratings posts are things like “Yay!! My favorite show improved by one million viewers!” followed by a commenter (or us) responding “total viewers do not matter!” And that will sometimes beget “yes they do matter” comments which beget “no they don’t!” comments.
So which is it?
Do Total Viewers Matter?
It depends on your reasons for caring about total viewers. If you don’t care about any of the business ramifications of the ratings and it just makes you happy that a show you like has a lot of total viewers, including you, then it matters. If NCIS goes up by a million viewers, and you just love that NCIS kicks some serious butt (it does!) in total viewers, including you, and that makes you happy and it matters to you, there’s nothing wrong with that.
If, on the other hand, your interest is in figuring out how much revenue potential a show has (via advertising) and/or its prospects for being renewed, then there is a massive amount of corroborative data that says this: total viewers do not matter to a show’s revenue potential or renewal fates. Only the age demographic viewing (mostly adults 18-49) matters to a show’s revenue potential.
The Only Reason There Are Ratings To Begin With Is To Figure Out How Much To Charge for Advertising
We know people love to root and have rooting interests and there’s nothing wrong with that. But keep in mind, the only reason the ratings exist to begin with is ultimately for the networks to figure out how much to charge for advertising on shows, and for the advertisers to figure out how much they should pay.
Total Viewers Do Not Matter to a Show’s Revenue Potential or Renewal Prospects
This doesn’t mean that total viewers shouldn’t matter to you. If they matter to you, they matter to you and that’s fine with us.
But they do not matter for a show’s earnings potential when it comes to selling advertising.
This may seem unfair to you, and I have found that it is particularly irksome for some of our viewers who are 50+ and for CBS who has more viewers over the age of 50 than any network. But the advertisers, not the networks are the ones who are targeting the younger viewers. Almost every network would love it if the advertisers cared more about the 50+ viewers.
We see comments all the time like “that’s dumb! It’s the people over 50 who have the money to spend, not some 23 year old kid!” And while that might be true, it doesn’t matter.
Why do advertisers care more about adults 18-49?
In broad terms, the perception from the advertisers is that the biggest bang comes from reaching adults under the age of 50, and it makes perfect sense to us.
We see a lot of people chime in that advertisers care about younger viewers because they are more susceptible to advertising. There is certainly some data out there that suggests younger people are more easily influenced by advertising.
But we don’t believe that the focus on adults 18-49 is really so much about the effectiveness of advertising (not to mention there are a bunch of products targeted at people over 50!) as it is about the availability of viewers.
People 50+ watch a lot more TV than people under 50, (and people 35-49 watch more TV than people under 35). Because people 50+ are relatively abundantly available to advertisers and there is relative scarcity of people under 50 (AKA: it’s harder to get in front of them with your ads) the advertisers care
Advertisers care more about reaching the people who are difficult to reach than they care about reaching the people who are easy to reach
If it looks like I’m saying a lot of the same things more than once here, you’re not imagining it. But the topic comes up in discussion here enough that I figured it can’t hurt to be redundant. The data on TV viewing is overwhelming, and overwhelmingly shows that older people watch more TV. Reaching 18-34 year olds is far more difficult, so advertising to them is expensive relative to reaching viewers 55+ who are much easier to reach.
From a supply/demand scarcity point of view, this makes complete sense.
But What If You Have Two Shows That Have the Same Adults 18-49 Rating – Does The One With More Viewers Make More Money?
Sadly, we don’t have enough data to precisely answer this question in every single instance. But all of the anecdotal data (and there is a lot of it) adds up to this: nope, even then, total viewers doesn’t matter. Most networks, particularly broadcast networks in primetime sell advertising only based on Adults 18-49. But other age demographics impact even the Adults 18-49 pricing.
For example, NBC might sell shows only based on adults 18-49, but “The Office,” for example has higher 18-49 rates because of its concentration of adults 18-34 who are watching. The data suggests that even the beast that is NCIS, in the end, only sells its advertising based on adults 18-49, and not total viewers. And a show like “The Big Bang Theory,” makes more in advertising both due to having more Adults 18-49 viewers and to having a lot more adults 18-34 viewers. And so far this season, that’s with “The Big Bang Theory” typically having more than 5 million fewer viewers for a new episode than a new episode of NCIS tallies.
This may seem unfair to some, but with the abundance of 50+ viewing in prime-time the advertisers can reach the 50+ viewers practically for free. While the number of 50+ viewers might influence the buying decisions in certain cases, it doesn't seem to have any impact on the advertising rates.
OK, But What If None of That Matters to ME and All I Care About Is Total Viewers? Why Should I Care About Anything Else?
If none of that matters to YOU and all you care about is total viewers. That is fine with us! And the only reason you should probably care about any of the other stuff is if you are a fan of a show that is likely on the bubble between renewal and cancellation. The truth is, it doesn’t matter if NCIS has 15 million total viewers and a 4.2 adults 18-49 rating or 30 million total viewers and a 4.2 adults 18-49 rating. It’s going to be renewed either way regardless.
But what if your favorite show is, a show called “Chuckles” and “Chuckles” is averaging a 2.2 adults 18-49 rating that puts it right on bubble of being renewed or canceled on network XYZ? Let’s say one week “Chuckles” gets a 2.2 rating with adults 18-49 and 6 million total viewers. And the next week it gets a 2.0 rating with adults 18-49 but with 7 million viewers.
In that scenario, some would say, “YES! “Chuckles” had a million more viewers this week, YAY!!!!!” But in truth, in that made up scenario, “Chuckles” prospects for renewal didn’t go up the week it had a million more viewers, the prospects, if anything, actually went down. If you care about trying to predict a show’s fate, and you care about not deluding yourself about the value of total viewers when it comes to a show’s renewal prospects, then you want to focus on the adults 18-49 rating. If you don’t care about a show’s fate or have no problems with deluding yourself when it comes to the value of total viewers we're not going to change your mind!
OK Fine, I STILL Care About Total Viewers Though! Am I The Only One?
Absolutely NOT. You are, as they say, legion. And besides you and your legion, there are a lot of hard working people in TV Network PR who care. When it comes to network spin (or any spin for that matter) more is better, and the biggest numbers will be touted whenever possible. In the “Chuckles” example above, you can bet that that network would’ve issued a ratings release noting that “Chuckles Improved By 1 Million Viewers!”
But If Total Viewers Don’t Matter At All Why Do You Even Bother Posting Them?
It is our goal to be as comprehensive as we can and we certainly want to post the information that is commonly available on other sites that post ratings info, and where we can, and are able, we like to post even more information. There are some sites that do only focus on adults 18-49 exclusively in their ratings reports. Though at this point our primary bias in focusing on ratings is revenue potential and prospects for renewal, and to make sense of the data, it is also our goal to just make the information easy to read. If you like visiting our site because it’s easy for you to skip right past anything we write about the ratings and go directly to the data tables and ignore everything but total viewers, that’s fine with us.
Updates based on Feedback:
- This FAQ was aimed at broadcast and cable network prime-time shows (and for the bigger networks at that). The discussion about the value of total viewers doesn't usually come up on shows that don't have a lot of total viewers!
- Different cable networks sell different demos (Disney/Nick kids, GSN: Older adults, Cable news targets 25-54 demo, etc)
- Different demos for different dayparts (women 18-49 seems to be the big day part for daytime programming on broadcast networks).
- Potential for increased DVD sales - some have suggested a relationship between viewers and DVD sales, though I can't actually quantify such a relationship exists
- Potential for reairings - this is a good point, shows with more total viewers, often, but not always do better in repeats and in syndication. Particularly more procedural shows ("NCIS" does great in reruns, "Grey's Anatomy" does not)