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.

  • Ray32


    Well, you’re right, in that the local samples are nowhere near as accurate as the national sample. This is actually a good illustration of the cost-efficiency problem: even in the big markets, local Nielsen clients cannot pay for a sample bigger than around 500 homes, so they live with a certain amount of inaccuracy that’s bigger than 1 %.

    However, you’re wrong about one household accounting for “2 or more samples” (and you mean “cases”, not “samples”): In people meter homes, one person is one case, not one household.

    @Freddy Arrow
    Nielsen’s number of 20,000 home is a bit misleading, because AFAIK they count all their LPM homes in that. And while it’s true that those enter into the national data pool, they are weighted down first so there won’t be a disproportionate number of homes from the big markets in the sample.

    @Alex Roggio
    You don’t seem to have understood a lot of the math in those courses you took, or you wouldn’t try to convince anybody by giving examples with ridiculously low case numbers. Also, it’s funny to me that a 5 % confidence interval gets criticized for the TV market here when it is good enough for all kinds of decisions elsewhere, including city planning, medicine approval, what have you…

  • AppleStinx


    Just to clarify, by “in many cases one household accounts for 2 or more samples” I meant that 2 or more samples are taken from 1 household, not that they are counted as 1.

  • Mary Amos

    If Neilsen is making so much then how come they don’t add more boxes?Why do advertizers ignore the age group that spend the most and watch the most.Its a known fact the baby boombers are the biggest audiences.They more secure in finaces to,We double dip spend.We bu for our children and grndchildren.We DVR for our grandchildren and even turn on kid friendly shows when there here.I have two son in the age group they prefer and like they said they are lucky to see n hour a day of what they like.They are always watching what the kids want.Neilsen has no reason to update there rating system.They are making millions and its time they change.

  • Nadine

    I would argue that indicating the trends is quite adequate for this sort of thing. You’d have to demonstrate that there was real swinging inaccuracy to warrant a big outlay of money to get “more accurate” numbers. Even if they did, there’d always be some guy in Cleveland complaining that there was household in Columbus that didn’t get counted last week: save my show.

  • Jennifer Finger

    The problem is that advertisers have more to do with what goes on the air than viewers. For a good reason. Advertisers are paying for it and vote with their dollars. Viewers are not paying for it. They are merely entertained by it and vote with their remote controls.

  • Troy Turner

    If VChips can be put in sets, we can get accurate ratings. End of story

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