Dear TV Fans: There Is No TV Ratings Measurement System That Will Make Everyone Happy

Categories: 1-Featured,Broadcast TV,Cable TV,Help

Written By

July 8th, 2012

Whenever there are Twitter Q&A's from  Syfy's Craig Engler (@Syfy) or USA's Ted Linhart (@TedOnTV) I just can't look away. Having seen many of the Twitter Q&A sessions it's well into repeat questions and different variants of the same questions. I still can't look away! There are always lots of questions about Nielsen and measurement. Many fans have a quarrel with Nielsen, but I've come to the conclusion that most of them would have a quarrel with TV ratings measurement no matter what the system of measurement was.

As long as there are fans of TV shows, there will be disappointed fans when shows get canceled. No measurement system can change that and whatever the measurement system, low-rated shows will typically be canceled.

There are several types of complaints/improvement suggestions that come up, here are a few of the most frequent:

We have the technology! We could measure everybody! Why don't they measure everybody!

The technological capabilities to achieve that probably exist but that technology doesn't actually exist yet. My bet is it never exists, even if the technology vastly improves. There are a lot of reasons why I think that but the top two are:

  1. lots of people don't want their viewing measured (they view it as an invasion of privacy)
  2. $$$$$ - It would cost too much money

There are other reasons besides those, but both of those are show stoppers. Would a complete census be more accurate than Nielsen? If you could get it, it would, without a doubt, be more accurate. But TV ratings measurement exists for the purpose of buying/selling TV advertising. The networks and advertisers aren't going to be willing to pay for it and as expensive as Nielsen is (and it's very expensive) the census style system would be multiple orders of magnitude more expensive to maintain and manage. The networks and advertisers aren't going to pay for something like that for a system that might only be a little more accurate.

On top of that you'd still probably need Nielsen or something like it because the census system would have so much data to crunch it wouldn't likely be able to produce fast national ratings the next morning and final ratings the next afternoon. The networks need the information fast so they can react and make scheduling decisions.

But what about data from all those set top boxes - that's a lot bigger sample than Nielsen!

It is indeed a bigger sample than Nielsen. But in at least a couple of ways it's not what advertisers (at least buyers of national advertising) want.

  1. it only measures people with set top boxes. Advertisers want to measure everyone, even the people still using rabbit ears
  2. it measures household viewing but doesn't tell you *who* in the household watched. Advertisers (at least buyers of national advertising) want to know who watched, what their gender is, what their age is, etc. set top box data isn't that granular.

the good news is the data is available and is being used.  Usually it is in addition to Nielsen and not a replacement though recently there have been reports that a few local stations are switching to using set top box data to sell local advertising spots. My understanding is that those numbers aren't churned out as rapidly as Nielsen reports ratings either.

Neftlix, On Demand, DVR, iTunes and Online Viewing Aren't Counted and they should be!

This is a fairly common one and not just with fans of TV shows. I've seen producers of shows with similar laments. First, let's talk about the "not counted" piece. DVD, Netflix, and iTunes certainly aren't counted in the Nielsen ratings. That's because the purpose of the Nielsen ratings is to measure in order to broker the sale of TV advertising, not to come up with some type of "total popularity" metric. Since Netflix, iTunes and DVDs don't have advertising, they're not counted in the Nielsen ratings. But that's not the same thing as "they're not counted." Of course sales of DVDs and iTunes episodes are counted and the people who need to know, know!  You can pretty much count on any deal where how much Netflix pays to license content depends on how many people watched on Netflix, it gets counted.  There are several reasons why months and months and months after the fact nobody reports a total popularity metric - but you can start with months and months and months after the fact it's not in anyone's interest to pay money to figure all that out. The people who need the information to make decisions have the information.

DVR viewing *is* measured by Nielsen.  Currently advertisers pay for commercials watched up to 3 days after the program initially aired on television (these ratings are commonly called C3 or C+3 ratings).  That was the compromise reached between the networks and the advertisers though the networks are reportedly still pushing for 7 days instead of 3.  In any event Nielsen measures commercial viewing live and up to three days after. On the program ratings side Nielsen measures DVR viewing up to 7 days after and can slice that in a variety of ways (the common slices are the same day DVR viewing included in the Live+SD daily ratings, L+3 which includes live plus 3 days of viewing and L+7 which is live plus seven days).

On Demand and Online viewing can be tracked by Nielsen but only up to 3 days after the initial telecast (for purposes of the C3 ratings advertisers use) and only if they contain the same national commercials that aired on TV. Some networks are playing around with this but particularly on the online side it looks like for now most networks are shying away from full commercial loads for online viewing. I'm not sure if that's because the networks don't want to put off online viewers by adding (LOTS) more commercials or whether the reality is that despite the measurement capabilities advertisers don't want to pay the same rates for online viewing or a combination of both.


Another thing to keep in mind is that whatever the measurement system, many of the things you (and the networks, for that matter) don't like aren't a function of measurement but rather what the advertisers are willing to pay for. So, for example, a new measurement system wouldn't change that broadcast primetime advertising is sold on the basis of adults 18-49 and subsets of adults 18-49. That's not about measurement, that's about what the folks with the big briefcases full of money want to spend it on.

  • Herb Fine

    This is why more than one method of measurement should be used, just not one. Break the Nielsen Monopoly!

  • jessica

    Robert is right in one thing, there would be no next-morning numbers if things changed to what some people think they should be.

    In Canada they have something probably not much different from Neilsen’s digital data collection but they also have people who record their viewing via analogue means and put it in the mail. That is why Canada’s weekly top 30 is published the Friday of the week afterward. Sure it is more accurate but how many Americans are that patient, and more so, how many tv and advertising executives are willing to wait up to 12 days for the most comprehensive data sample? The guy, also named Bill, who runs the Canadian site similar to this provides the digitally collected overnight numbers, usually on Tuesdays, for the networks and the popular cable shows but does tweet the trendy shows like Continuum asap. Once in a while the analogue viewing records coming in the mail will cause a bit of a shift in the numbers for a show but usually they are same or really close.

    In the UK the ratings info is published usually next-day but is not the finalised number. For that you usually have to wait about a week. BARB tracks SD HD and the +1 channels separately. I am still shocked at how few people will watch the HD feed of a show. I’m not sure how they collect the info but again most people in the US would not like having to wait a week for the numbers from a larger sample.

    People come to Robert & Bill’s site to discuss the performance of last nights’ shows. Would this site have much traffic if you had to wait until 13 July to get the numbers for Rookie Blue s3e5 which was on tv 5 July? If it functioned like that this site would likely never have existed.

    It sucks! So does the freshman 15, inflation, 4×3 crops of 16×9 shows, your boss, and ‘rush’ hour traffic. If you have the money and set up your own network great but otherwise your opinion and mine count only toward Bill & Robert’s gross income. :) It must really be a snow news day between this and the Falling Skies. I guess the return of CBS’ rookie blue rip-off isn’t that interesting.

  • Fake Me Out


    I have the simple, perfect answer. Monitor my viewing habits. Take result, subtract several years, multiply by 25 million = Ratings Gold baby! It’s quick, cheap and accurate. You’re welcome.


  • John Crawford

    this guy’s been drinking the Kool-Aid too long. We know the sponsors have a lot of influence on those being polled. I don’t watch any of the top rated shows in primetime, most not even in re-runs. But they stay on the air, because of some artificially created numbers in the ratings. While many many shows I’ve liked and watched religiously, went bye-bye. So don’t try to sell us on some realistic or scientific system of ratings. If the networks and the sponsors want it to stay on, it stays on. Period, dot, the end.

  • Saul

    @ John Crawford

    You might want to read up on how statistics and sampling works before you start crying about “artificially created numbers”.

  • KS

    Its been months I switched on my Television. I do everything in my computer. I personally don’t find a need to switch on Television.

  • Robert Seidman

    @Saul: it’s pretty typical for some of the “they cancel the shows I like and renew the ones I don’t care about” crowd to drink the conspiracy Kool Aid.

    @Jessica: summer is slow, summer Sundays even slower but relatively Falling Skies draws a lot of interest, it’s like the “Fringe” of summer (on the smaller summer scale). As for NYC22, I would have probably noted it in the headline if I’d have done the Saturday ratings post but there’s never much (or as much) interest in shows whose fates are already known as is the case w/NYC22. but had it pulled a 1.5 A18-49 instead of a 0.5, it would’ve definitely been newsworthy.

  • Lord Seth

    @ Robert Seidman

    @Saul: it’s pretty typical for the “they cancel the shows I like and renew the ones I don’t care about” crowd to drink the conspiracy Kool Aid.

    My favorite argument of that kind of crowd is “I don’t watch any of the top-rated shows, so these numbers can’t be right!” So, Nielsen’s sample size is too small but a sample size of 1 is big enough?

    At any rate, decent article, though it is ultimately things you’ve already said elsewhere.

  • Flame

    Good article, and of course there is not really a solution.

    What I should add is that according to the age pyramid, less and less people fall into the 18-49 demographic. So in my opinion that range should be broadened – of course they won’t do that.

    Another point: Apparently there are statistics about how often TV shows are downloaded. (How I met your Mother and Big Bang Theory being in the Top 3.) So why not add those numbers? To answer myself: Because ads are cut out I guess.

    What could be done to increase happiness even if shows are canceled? Provide a satisfying end to each season. Nothing’s worse than a show ending in a cliffhanger. Caroline in the City, Gary Unmarried anyone?

  • JakeSnake

    Yes there will always be those who bitch, but the fact is there are very few people who know about TV ratings that are satisfied with the current Nielsen system. It’s still essentially the same as it was 60 years ago. They’ve made minor changes, but I think TV viewership has changed so much since then it’s time for a complete overhaul. Yeah a different system would have its own problems as well, but I’d be pretty surprised if it were worse than what we have now.

  • Keppel1

    “whatever the measurement system, low-rated shows will typically be canceled” – But with a different *better* system, there’d be a totally different list of so-called low-rated shows. The stupid reality shows would be the first to go because *everyone* says how stupid they are and who really watches those things? Shows with cult followings, with the most vocal, loyal fan base (as opposed to the coveted “casual viewers”) would be the top ten shows because loyal fans write to advertisers in support of their fave show, and a new system would prove there are more popular fan-supported shows than the dumb shows Nielsen says are the top 10. Of course, low-rated shows would still be canceled but the point of having a new ratings system would be so fans could really support – and save – their favorite shows, so they wouldn’t be unfairly “low-rated.” ~Keppel1~

  • Robin Burks

    The problem with SyFy viewers is that they tend to be more technologically savvy and are watching programs that aren’t on “live” t.v. Personally, I buy a lot of their programs from Amazon (as I refuse to get in bed with the cable company and pay $100/month so I can get five channels that I like). And it’s frustrating that I pay for each of these shows every week but somehow that doesn’t make a difference with ratings.

    This b.s. that if we like a show we have to cancel any of our plans and watch it live at the time it comes on and plan our entire lives around that in order to prevent it from being canceled is outdated b.s.

  • Holly

    I don’t think anyone loves the Nielsen system, but many of the problems are ones that any reasonable (and reasonably priced) measurement system would have.

    You’re never going to get everyone to agree to be measured. I remember reading that more than half of the people approached by Nielsen say no. You can’t make it compulsory (privacy issues) and just taking whoever wants to sign up will make a non-representative sample group.

    So any system would need to use a representative sample. While Nielsen’s sample could certainly be larger, it will take time and money to expand it. Also, I wonder whether the larger sweeps samples turn in significantly different data…which could indicate whether a larger overall sample would be worth the extra cost.

    Even if online viewing rivaled TV viewing in numbers (it doesn’t), it would still need to be measured separately because the advertisers want to know what they are buying. Of course, the issue with online viewing is still not know who is viewing. If I recall correctly Nielsen’s recent efforts to measure online viewing using their sample (and thereby being able to report demographic data to the clients) oddly was met with resistance from the networks.

    Any new rival measurement company would have to convince both advertisers and networks that they can given them all the information Nielsen can more accurately and more efficiently, which is unlike to happen for a start-up.

  • Stephanie

    my biggest problem is that tv is being filled with some many of the same type show. You get one show that was a success when it was different that everything else and then everyone else has to copy it. Suddenly you have 20 carbon copies and you lose real shows, you lose being able to actually change the channel to see something else cause all the networks put the same type of shows on at the same time to compete with each other.

    How many “reality” shows (“storage wars”,”property wars” “american pickers” “cash cowboys”) they are going to put on or how long are they going to run a shows like “American Idol” that is getting really old-winners are not doing nearly as well now as early season ones. The execs are getting to be worse about instant success than teens. If a show isn’t a hit automatically, it’s screwed. I want to see a plot, character development, suspense and drama. Maybe a little comedy thrown in.

    Its a good think that the shows that I like, I really like, cause I watch them whenever they are on, since there is usually nothing else on, even with over 300 channels.

  • Oliver

    Here’s a question: Does it actually matter to advertisers if Nielsen is accurate or not? Would advertisers notice much difference if network ratings were secretly created by a random number generator instead of Nielsen’s methodology?

    Is the dirty little secret of Nielsen that their accuracy doesn’t matter as long so long as advertisers continue to believe in it?

  • Ted Linhart

    Wow lots of good debate. Few things. Nielsen cannot just put a chip in set top boxes – or just buy the data. All of that is owned and controlled by cable MSOs. Getting that data out of all boxes and usable WITHOUT sample bias is a massive political and financial undertaking

    A competitor to Nielsen would be good but the return on the immense capital investment needed is not likely to be big and definitely not certain. Others have tried and gone belly up

  • Holly


    Content is not a function of the measurement system. If people didn’t watch all the clones, they wouldn’t last.


    Yes and no. As long as the advertisers and networks agree to use these numbers, it doesn’t matter how accurate they are. However, if the advertisers and networks had reason to believe they were wildly inaccurate and a better system was economically feasible, they’d stop paying Nieslen billions of dollars, so Nielsen has reason to be as accurate as reasonably and economically possible.

  • Ted Linhart

    @john Crawford
    ” If the networks and the sponsors want it to stay on, it stays on. Period, dot, the end”
    That is indeed the opoosite of how it all works. Sponsors want shows that get high ratings (or hit a specific target group) and do not really care what the show is (assuming it doesnt have severe content issues). Networks want EVERY show they air to do well – we pull the ones that are not working financially (combo of lower ratings and higher costs).

  • Ted Linhart

    Bingo and Bingo

  • Ultima

    @Lord Seth
    So, Nielsen’s sample size is too small but a sample size of 1 is big enough?

    How dare you imply that [insert commenter] isn’t perfectly representitive of the viewing choices of the entire American population!

    Although, be wary of implying that [insert elitist commenter] is not more enlightened and doesn’t have better viewing choices than the rest of the entire American population!


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