Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A Sample of Nielsen Ratings

So, reader Anonymous brought up an interesting point in a comment to yesterday's posting: What are the Nielsen ratings and why should we care?

(By the way, a quick aside here, I encourage you guys to post comments as often as you like, but it makes it a little easier for me if some of you pick screen names so I can be a little more personal when I respond. The "American Idol" posting had a bunch of responses, but most of them were logged in as Anonymous, so it was hard to tell who was posting what. You don't have to use your real name for comments, and if you want to stay Anon, that's fine, but I'm just throwing it out there...)

Anyway, back to the Nielsens, which were first developed by Arthur Nielsen in the 1960s as a way of measuring TV audiences for an individual program. Once the ratings system was figured out, it was a way for the networks to set their advertising rates. A more popular show with higher ratings would obviously cost more to advertise with, but it would also reach more people in theory.

It also is a way for networks to decide whether to keep a program on the air and in what timeslot that show should be. Let's say you have "Grey's Anatomy," which gets 30 million viewers. If the show that follows it at 10 p.m. gets 15 million viewers for example, then ABC knows that second show is losing half its lead-in audience. So the network has to decide whether its worth it to keep that show on in that timeslot.

In theory, it's a good system because networks won't waste millions of dollars on shows that people don't care about.

In practice, not so much.

Nielsen measures the numbers in two ways: ratings, which is the total number of people watching a program at one time; and shares, which measures the percentage of people who have TVs actually on at a certain time who are watching that program. One ratings point equals 1.1 million TV households.

Nielsen keeps track of the numbers in a couple of ways. It picks a significant enough statistical sample as its measuring stick and uses electronic devices to record which program the Nielsen viewer is watching. In addition, the viewer is asked to keep a diary of what he or she watches each week.

But there are some problems with all of that. Any statistical sampling automatically includes a margin of error, so the numbers may not reflect the true popularity of a show. It could be a little more or less popular than the numbers say.

In addition, many Nielsen families aren't particularly accurate in their journals. They may not include a show they might be embarrassed to tell their friends they enjoy, say your typical Fox reality show, or they may over-emphasize a show they like but is doing poorly overall in the ratings. Or they may be lazy with their journals and omit shows entirely.

Add to that the fact that Nielsen has only included recorded programs in the last couple of years in the numbers, and it's even more out of whack. For example, Monday night I watched "Heroes" and taped "24." A few years ago, the "24" numbers wouldn't have counted (they do now), which means shows in the past that had poor ratings may have been watched by more people than the numbers showed.

In fact, with the advent of DVRs, the entire landscape of TV has changed and the Nielsens have been rendered moot. With a DVR, one can record live programs and watch them as they are being broadcast, but skip the commercials - which is the whole point as to why the Nielsens exist in the first place. Plus, people now have the opportunity to watch programs via Web-based platforms, such as a network's Web site or iTunes or even on their cell phone.

With so few people not watching commercials any more, the ratings system has become a bit pointless, because it doesn't really reflect what an individual is watching. This can be proven a little bit by the fact that some shows that have been canceled have had fantastic DVD sales, meaning they had more viewers than originally thought. "Family Guy" is a good example of that.

With all the new platforms of TV viewing coming out, I'd be in favor of having a device measuring what everyone is watching and compiling the numbers anonymously. That'll never happen, however, because privacy groups in this country would protest such an idea.

Nielsen really isn't the best system any more for measuring a show's popularity. It's just the one we're going to be stuck with.

GREY'S UPDATE: "Grey's Anatomy" star Isaiah Washington, who has been the center of a public relations nightmare with his multiple uses of an anti-gay slur, met with officials from GLAAD this week in an effort to make amends.

It's a positive step in the right direction, and hopefully it's a genuine effort from Washington to learn more tolerance and not just a P.R. stunt to answer his critics.

The move still doesn't let ABC or "Grey's" producer Shonda Rimes off the hook for not doing more to handle the situation or discipline Washington when the incident first happened. And whether or not the rift that has happened among the cast will ever be healed remains to be seen.

WEDNESDAY'S BEST BET: Last week, NBC pulled a new episode of "Friday Night Lights" (NBC, 8 p.m.) so that it wouldn't get clobbered by "American Idol" (Fox, 8 p.m.) This week, "Lights" is supposed to be new, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

CBS has a full night of new stuff, as does NBC and ABC.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Phillip for the post. It does help me understand how the 'system' works. And just so you know, I have tried to set up an identity...I filled everything out and was able to post the first day with my new user name. Then the next day it would not take it. So after a few days of tries I just gave up and took the easy way out and just clicked the 'Anonymous' button. Maybe I'll try to set up another identity at some point. But thanks for the post...I would hope one day they will figure out a 'true' system that better reflects what the viewer is watching.

Phillip Ramati said...

Thanks for letting me know about the ID problem. Our tech guy is out for the week, but I'll discuss it with him on Monday.

Blogger has been having all sorts of technical difficulties lately.

Zodin2008 said...

It's completely wrong with the advent of DVR's and Tivo's for recorded programs not to be counted equally.

Just because I waited to watch "Studio 60" on Tuesday night at 10 PM rather then Monday at 10 PM, doesn't mean I didn't watch! But I won't be counted based on the way Nielsen counts things.

I also did a Nielsen Diary back in August and to be honest, as a fan of many shows that aren't top ten hits like "Veronica Mars", shows that deserve far batter ratings and fates then they are getting, I over emphasized and admitted watching Re-Runs of "Mars" that I didn't watch...but I did this because I am so desperate to give "Veronica" any extra help I can get.

And speaking of "Veronica", I am still livid over the CW's treatment of this show. It's one of the only shows that's imporved it's numbers (and quality) from a year ago since brought over, and yet it's being treated like the show has an STD. They promised 22 episodes and now their will only be 20, or even 18? Plus, they are yanking it in March for the frakking Pussycat Dolls? As Starbuck would say, that's FRAKKED UP.

Phillip Ramati said...

Zod, the Nielsens now do count recorded programs, but it has only been in the last couple of years.

I suppose I should admonish you over manipulating the ratings, what with my coommitment to the process of statistical sampling and all, but since it was for Veronica Mars, I'll let it slide. :-)