Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and The Walking Dead. What do these shows have in common? They’re all examples of TV shows that have gained significant viewership over the course of their runs, a feat so rare as to be near impossible. But how is a TV show’s audience size determined? More importantly, why does it matter?
That’s where the Nielsen Company steps in. It should be noted that the Nielsen Company is only responsible for TV ratings in the United States, but similar techniques are used by comparable organizations in other regions of the world (e.g., BARB in the UK).
What Are Nielsen Ratings?
For those of you who keep up with TV-related news, you’ve probably heard mention of a points-based system that determines ratings among groups like the 18-49. What does it mean that the Game of Thrones season 4 premiere “opened with a 3.6“? It all sounds confusing, but rest assured that it isn’t.
Before we delve into the actual calculations, let’s talk about why ratings matter. TV networks make most of their money in two ways: syndication and advertising.
Syndication occurs when a producer sells to another network the rights to show reruns of a program. The more popular the show, the higher the price. Advertising is more self-explanatory: shows with larger audiences can guarantee more exposure for advertisers, so a stronger TV rating means higher advertising prices.
In the United States, the Nielsen Ratings system is the standard that networks and producers use to determine the popularity and viewership of their programs.
How Are Nielsen Ratings Calculated?
Nielsen Ratings are actually determined by survey. The company carefully selects a sample size of the population and distributes “Nielsen boxes” to participating households. These boxes are hooked up to TVs and log the viewing habits of these “Nielsen families”. The data is sent to the Nielsen Company for processing and analysis.
You cannot apply to become a Nielsen family; instead, they send out invitations at random. Each family’s demographic information is recorded and incorporated into the analysis to determine the audience types that watch different programs. The 18-49 age group is most valued as they are the most likely to be influenced by commercials.
Once the statistics are gathered, ratings are measured in two parts: points refer to the percentage of all Nielsen boxes that tuned into the program while share refers to the percentage of all active Nielsen boxes that tuned into the program.
Ratings are formatted as points/share, so a program rated 8.0/14.5 means 8% of all Nielsen boxes were watching and 14.5% of all active Nielsen boxes were watching. If there are 100 million Nielsen families, that means 8 million viewers.
Why Are Nielsen Ratings Problematic?
Nielsen TV ratings have been around since 1950. Back then, the only way to watch a television program was to use a physical television set. Technology has evolved, however, and it has become apparent that the Nielsen system may be on its way towards obsolescence.
One of the big complaints against the system is that it’s a representative sample. Theoretically, it would be possible for all Nielsen families to not watch Program A while all non-Nielsen families do watch Program A. That program would receive a 0.0 rating even though it had a significant audience.
Ultimately, this means that you have no vote when it comes to supporting a TV program’s longevity. When a show like Community is on the verge of cancellation, it doesn’t matter whether you watch it or not unless you have a Nielsen box. That can be frustrating for fans.
What about the issue of watching TV without a TV? We have services like Netflix and Hulu now. We also have TV streaming sites, whether they’re direct from the network (such as HBO GO) or of the less-than-legal variety. How many people consume television content without ever sitting in front of a TV?
And then we have torrents. It’s so much more convenient to torrent the latest episode of Mad Men and to watch at your own leisure than to schedule your life around network programming. Torrenting is easy and viewers who watch-by-torrent aren’t included in TV ratings.
This is how TV programming works. If you don’t have a Nielsen box (or an equivalent device in regions outside the United States), it doesn’t matter how you watch. Want to support your favorite shows? Too bad. On the flipside, you also can’t hurt your favorite shows by not watching them. Such is the Nielsen way.
What do you think about all of this? Does it seem fair to you or would you prefer an alternative method for tracking viewership? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!