Broadcast TV Viewers: You're Not The Customer, You're The Product Being Sold

Categories: Broadcast TV,TV Business

Written By

February 5th, 2014

The laments from commenters that broadcast television networks "need to listen to their customers" typically betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between broadcast TV viewers and broadcast TV networks.

Viewers are not the broadcast networks' customers, they're the networks' product.

How do the customers and products stack up in TV land?

Broadcast TV Networks:

  • Customers: Traditionally advertisers. In recent years, broadcast networks have begun negotiating carriage fees from cable, satellite and telephone providers, so those companies are now also customers.
  • Product: Viewers (adults 18-49 in primetime) to advertisers. Programming feed to providers.

Ad Supported Cable Networks:

  • Customers: Same customers as the broadcast TV networks, but currently reversed in importance. Carriage fees are more important to most (all?) ad supported cable networks than is advertising revenue.
  • Product: Viewers (various age/gender demo groups) to advertisers. Programming feed to providers.

Premium Cable Networks: (HBO, Showtime, etc)

  • Customers: Primarily subscribers, but carriage providers as well, who act as the "retailers" of their product.
  • Product: Programming.

TV Studios:

  • Customers: Broadcast and cable networks, both for first run and syndication. DVD buyers. Online streaming companies (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc).
  • Product: TV programs.
  • Silent Hunter

    Mind you, if the networks don’t get the viewers, the advertisers won’t be happy.

  • Samuel Gagné Martel

    I don’t know about you, but I pay my cable provider in order to see “free” networks. Basic cable package may not be that expensive, but I still have to pay for it. True, I don’t have a choice, those channels will be there whether I want it or not but still. Anyway, my vote doesn’t count, I’m from Canada so even If watch the “big 4″ it doesn’t matter to them.

  • skyfi

    I agree this is not funny, when you are the product, lol.

  • Dan S

    The nice thing about shows on Netflix & Amazon is their supported by the paying subscriber not advertisers. I’m thoroughly enjoying Betas, Orange is the new Black, House of Cards, Lilyhammer just to name a few. Too bad well viewed shows on the networks like Harry’s Law & Body of Proof couldn’t get a new home on these streaming services.

  • David

    The nice thing about Netflix and Amazon is they know exactly how many people are viewing the shows, unlike network TV where if a single Nielson home goes out to dinner the ratings lower by 5 million viewers.

  • Reality.Bites

    If you’re not part of the Neilsen or BBM ratings no one knows if you watch or don’t.

  • J S

    Intellectually, most of us can understand the concept of viewers as products being sold by the networks to their sugar daddy advertisers but from an emotional perspective, it is quite another story. No one endures watching 19 or so minutes of a broadcast program for the pleasure and honor of watching 11 or so minutes of commercials. While I understand the Nielsen system of collecting data from both viewer diaries and set meters, how do they discern just how much attention, if any, is being paid to the commercials (and how much is retained and for how long). While we are led to believe Nielsen is apparently the best ratings system currently available, it is important to remember one big glaring flaw: it is not a random sample of viewers in the purest mathematical sense since Nielsen must solicit participants who either accept the agreement or turn it down. Furthermore, since one assumes participants are compensated, it begs the question just how much this compensation might influence behavior both consciously and unconsciously.

  • Jenna_S


  • DTravel

    As a former Nielsen Household, I can assure you the “compensation” isn’t enough to influence anyone. It wasn’t even enough to cover the hassle of having their equipment installed and removed.

  • John Hudson

    To be honest I always wondered why Nielsen is like only name when it comes to TV ratings. I smell a monopoly…

  • jgmitzen

    Wait a second, I don’t pay anything for this website…..

  • svchost

    I think you’re more like an employee than a product. You give your time (watching ads) and in exchange you get a benefit (the TV show). Most people, even in the service industry, do not consider their employees to be their ‘product’.

  • Paul Conner

    As the viewer we must first be the customer in order to buy what the networks are selling, then when we attach our interest to a program, we can be sold to the advertisers. Jeez, I feel used.

  • J S

    I believe Nielsen will now be forced to make you and your family permanently disappear into their witness protection program since you have broken the Nielsen code of silence :) You are the first person I have read on this site who has admitted participating as a Nielsen counted household. Tell us more about your experience.

  • BearInTheShadows

    Nielsen is not out scouring forums and trying to find out people’s internet handles. They don’t have the capability or the mandate.

  • Lauren

    Which is why House of Cards was renewed for its third season before airing the premiere of season 2

  • Moone

    I think ratings should be an option on your cable box. If you want what you watch to be tracked, you can turn it on. I do not understand why only certain people get to participate.

  • DTravel

    Or likely care.

    As for my “experience”, it was pretty much a non-experience. They came in, put electronic doo-hickeys (the highly technical term for them) in my TV and my VCR. Then a year later they came and took them out. That was it. I didn’t have a cable box, my VCR was “cable-ready” and filled that function. Yes, this was some years ago. I honestly don’t remember if I was compensated or not. If so it was a whole $5.

  • Joey

    not everyone has a cable box. It would be expensive to have every person participate

  • Science Advisor

    Actually they do. The problem is they get so lost in convoluted X-^2 comparisons, by the time they have figured out what the appropriate response package is, a new season has started and their systems all reset.

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