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How Nielsen Ratings Determine What You Watch on TV

Joel Lee 25-04-2014

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 Hulu Plus vs. iTunes vs. Netflix vs. Amazon Instant Video: Which Is Best? Hulu. iTunes. Netflix. Amazon Instant Video. The lifeblood of online cinema and television. The new wave of home media. The providers of endless entertainment in which pants are not necessarily required. They are the contenders... Read More now. We also have TV streaming sites Yes, You CAN Watch TV Online Legally & For Free Everyone knows that there are lots of illegal ways to watch your favorite shows online, but there are also plenty of perfectly legal (and free) ways. Here are some of the best... Read More , 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 The Torrent Guide for Everyone This beginner's guide is a great introduction to peer-to-peer file sharing with BitTorrent. Get started with torrent downloading in a safe and responsible way with our tips here. Read More 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!

Image Credits: TV Wall Via Shutterstock, Family Watching TV Via Shutterstock, Netflix Via Shutterstock.com

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  1. Anonymous
    September 5, 2015 at 1:51 pm

    I don't know what is gong on with the abc family network I am really stress out want to know why

    I am cleaning up abc family network mess around here, the worst part I am cleaning up tom ascheim mess around here should I be doing this no

    The worst part is tom ascheim is knocking down the chasing life raitings and knocking down half of the porgramming shows ratings

    There are over 50,00000 to 60,00000 million of people watching abc family programming shows on On Demand DVR Netflixs and hulu people are scared because the raitings are bad and it's hard for people to watch abc family programming shows On tv so we turn to On Demand DVR Netflixs and hulu

    • Mihir Patkar
      September 5, 2015 at 4:08 pm

      Sorry, I'm out of the loop in what you're talking about. What's the ABC Family Network mess you're talking about?

      • Anonymous
        September 5, 2015 at 5:23 pm

        The abc family programming shows are
        Baby Daddy
        Becoming us
        Chasing life
        Job or no Job
        Monica The Medium
        Next Step Realty
        Start Up
        Swiched at birth
        The Fosters
        Young and hungry

        And the worst part is the ratings are that bad and tom ascheim is the one who is responsible for knocking down all these raitings to these beautiful shows

        Well the fans have their feelings about these abc family raitings sounds like this sad angry and very upset

        now days fanbase are watching tv show on On Demand DVR Netflixs and hulu and and how many people 50,00000 to 60,00000 people

      • Anonymous
        September 12, 2015 at 4:39 pm

        People these days are super busy with work school family other stuff and we do not have time to watch abc family programming shows on tv

        there is over 50,000000 to 60,000000 people watching abc family programming shows on On Demand DVR Netflixs and hulu

        Also i am wondering what is taking the Nelison family services a long time to track the abc family programming shows raitings
        you know it's simple to hand over the raitings to tom ascheim and all the raitings will be fixed

        I am all stress out because I am cleaning up abc family network messes and also cleaning up abc family ranking systems messes

        The worst part is I am also cleaning up cw network messes and also cleaning up cw ranking systems messes Should I be doing this no

      • Anonymous
        September 20, 2015 at 9:58 pm

        Abc family network has incredible shows on tv I love watching
        Baby daddy
        Becoming us
        Chasing life
        Job or no Job
        Kevin from Work
        Monica The Medium
        Next Step Realty
        Start Up U
        Swiched at birth
        The Fosters
        Young and hungry

        The raitings are getting really ugly and half of the shows are about to be canceled
        Chasing life only has 2 Episode left and we don't know what going to happen f tom ascheim renew chasing life for a third season

  2. Jim L.
    September 14, 2014 at 1:46 pm

    With todays technology and most providers backbone there would be little difficulty in tracking what viewers are watching. The problem is there is no incentive for the cable or satellite companies to do so. The networks are more interested in making money from the telecommunications companies and have no interest in paying them for this data.

    • Anonymous
      September 20, 2015 at 11:37 pm

      Oops made a spell grammer
      abc family and tom ascheim are the ones that handles renewing tv shows or cancellation tv shows

  3. Sen
    June 26, 2014 at 2:07 am

    How simple would it be to track views on a certain video? They do it on youtube. Count the views of who watches online. maybe even combine this info with hte nielson boxes.

    • Joel L
      June 30, 2014 at 3:59 am

      The problem is that "views" are easy to fake and abuse. At best they could only be used as an approximation, but it would require a strict environment with strict controls, such as views only counting from "Nielsen-approved IP addresses" or "Nielsen-equipped modems" or something like that. Not an easy thing to implement, unfortunately.

    • Anonymous
      October 3, 2015 at 7:31 pm

      Neilson family services is not streaming porgramming shows on On Demand DVR Netflixs

      Chasing life is officially canceled no third season due to the fact that tom ascheim is knocking down the chasing life raitings

      I really want to know what is going on and why they are not streaming abc family programming shows raitings to tom ascheim

  4. dragonmouth
    April 26, 2014 at 1:21 pm

    "One of the big complaints against the system is that it’s a representative sample"
    The prime example of that was the original Star Trek series. Because of low Nielsen ratings, NBC killed the show. Then the Trekkies started writing letters, ultimately convincing NBC to bring the show back.

    • Saikat B
      April 26, 2014 at 5:46 pm

      Another example comes to mind -- Firefly. It had low ratings, but went on to have great DVD sales and a "cult" status.

  5. Bob
    April 26, 2014 at 2:41 am

    We got 3 diaries for 3 tv's and only one(1) crisp dollar bill in the mailing. Guess our report is worth less than yours.... maybe because we're not 18-49??

    • Joel L
      May 5, 2014 at 6:58 pm

      One dollar? Wow. That's more insulting than not paying anything.

  6. Cody
    April 25, 2014 at 8:04 pm

    What about DVRs? Does watching a show a day or week or month later still count as having been viewed? I would think that DVRs would distort the statistics as well.

    • Joel L
      May 5, 2014 at 6:57 pm

      The interaction between DVR and Nielsen box is a bit complicated, but I do know that DVRs track their own usage statistics. Whether or not Nielsen incorporates those statistics? I don't know for sure.

  7. Kevin
    April 25, 2014 at 5:14 pm

    Wife and I are doing our second Nielsen Survey in about 2 months. They never said anything about a Nielsen Box. We have to write everything down on a survey book. It really takes a lot of time. The first time they paid use $30 to do it, but the second time it is only $4. With all of the modern technology, you would think that they would have a more technology based way of do it.

    • Joel L
      May 5, 2014 at 6:55 pm

      Ah, right. I forgot to mention Nielsen diaries, which are (like you said) antiquated and time-consuming. Surely there has to be a better way...!

      • Anonymous
        September 13, 2015 at 5:59 pm

        Unfortunately neilson family is not streaming abc family programming shows on On Demand DVR Netflixs and hulu and the worse part is they are not tracking the raitings

        People have Lives we are busy with work school and hanging out with family and we do other stuff and nobody has time to watch abc family programming shows on tv