Chadwick Matlin’s article on saving TV shows at The Big Money, first made me laugh since I thought this was going to be yet another whining TV fan asking other people to saving their beloved show from cancellation (Moonlight, Veronica Mars, etc), but it turns out its the most honest and potentially effective thing I’ve read about TV ratings. I’ve spent more than a third of my life working in the entertainment industry, so I know of what I speak.
TV ratings are about as meaningful as political polling. We take a small sample of viewers, check the numbers, and then treat it as gospel to decide what stays on the air, who’s worth keeping in a cast, and what time to put it on. Nielsen ratings are admittedly an imperfect system. Matlin boils it down:
The television business rests upon the central lie that it knows what you’re watching. In the old days, it was impossible for the network to keep track of who was watching what. So, instead, Nielsen started asking a sample of Americans to keep diaries of their television use. Eventually, that methodology largely evolved to a digital one, involving a box that transmits a viewing log back to Nielsen HQ. But the country has only somewhere between 12,000 and 37,000 homes reporting back with data. Compare that with the more than 112 million television-equipped households in this country. Now, even if we assume that these Nielsen readings are accurate—and there are many who believe that’s not the case—the huge gap between 12,000 and 112 million means almost everyone is stripped of an actual voice in the process.
So unless you’re a Nielsen household, the networks have no idea if you’re bingeing on Bravo’s Top Chef or crying through ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. The number of viewers that is reported in the press—the 24.4 million people who watch American Idol, say—is extrapolated from the readings from those Nielsen boxes. The “save our show” campaigns are ill-advised because they fail to take into account this all-important gap between the sample size and the size of the sampled audience.
The alternative is to drive people where they can actually be counted—and these days that’s online. The Internet offers metrics everywhere you turn. The networks can analyze the number of streams, number of ad impressions, number of page views, number of visits, number of visitors, number of comments, etc.
The only flaw with this suggestion is that you end up with programming preferences potentially driven by people with high speed broadband connections and the free time to watch TV on their computers or smartphones. That demographic encompasses a lot of coffeehouse douchebags, teenagers, and slackers in cubicles. The current system favors older people because most of Nielsen’s infrastructure is still geared towards people who watch live TV. This is why shows that might have been extremely popular when they began still get big ratings, when most of us have moved on (American Idol, Deal or No Deal) and also why shows that you can’t find anyone who watches under the age of thirty (Two and Half Men, Ghost Whisper) stay on the air.
We need something in the middle, a system that takes into account what older people are watching and then what everybody else watches, no matter where they watch it. To their credit Nielsen has made significant moves to capture DVR (TiVo) viewing or what we call “time shifted” viewing. Since the dawn of the television age the only rating currency was “live program ratings”. Now there is Live, Live + same day, Live + 3 day, Live + 7 day, etc. Now, networks know when people watched a program and in the case of online– how you watched.
But remember for everybody except HBO and Showtime, programming is just a
means to deliver an ad to you the viewer. The funny thing is now, advertisers care less about program ratings. They want to know how many people saw the ad or fast forwarded thru it, so now there are pure commercial ratings just measusing 15, 30, or 60 seconds worth of commercial time. So if you really want so save a television show… watch the ads.