If you follow TV news, you must keep hearing about ‘Nielsen Ratings’ and how important they are to determine the fate of the shows you love. They make ratings sound as the absolute measure for what people want to watch. Nevertheless, some shows are beloved by many and ratings seem to fail to reflect that fact. How often have you found out that your favorite show is about to get cancelled due to bad ratings, even though everyone you know watches it?

Everyone in the TV industry knows that Nielsen ratings are more than imperfect and there are many reasons why they don’t accurately measure viewership. Here is a simplified guide of how the rating system works (or doesn't work) and how fans can hope to influence programming decisions and save shows.

Nielsen in a nutshell

Nielsen measures television ratings using a sample of the populations in each market. The US is divided in 210 ‘TV markets’ called DMAs. The ratings are simply the percentage of people who watch a TV show out of all the TV households in that DMA.

Some TV households are invited to be part of the sample, if they agree they install a meter on their TV sets which measures TV viewership and demographic data. Only the viewership of the households with meters counts towards the ratings. So if you don’t have a meter on your TV it doesn't really matter if you watch and re-watch the show you are hoping to save…

And what could make it even worse? Not all markets have meters. The smaller markets record viewership on diaries… yes DIARIES. So, the participants of the sample have to sit down every day and actually write what they watched the day before. Can you imagine the inaccuracies of that method? I don’t even remember what I had for lunch!

Why do ratings matter so much? Because ad spots are sold based on the number of viewers of a particular shows. So, more viewers = more ad revenue. And it is even better to have the type of viewers advertisers want. In most cases Women 18-49 years old.

So why do Nielsen ratings suck?

Veronica Mars
It seems unfair that a small percentage of the population is deciding what the whole country wants to watch. The size of the Nielsen sample is [statistically] adequate; however the composition of it is not. Some groups of the population are underrepresented. For instance it could happen that women 25-49 represent 20% of a certain market, however only 8% of the sample corresponds to that demographic. Therefore, the results have to be weighed which increases the error of the estimation.

And speaking of errors, in any estimation, there is a standard error. Ratings are not the exception; however everyone seems to forget that! They only take into account the mean and forget that there is a possible deviation. Also, Nielsen doesn't take into account any type of ‘group’ TV watching and they ignore viewership in college dorms, hotels, hospitals, restaurants, etc.



Social Media

As of today, there isn't an established link between social impressions and programming decisions. It is safe to say that programmers are at least partially influenced by online buzz, but it is hard to say how much. It is unlikely that they will cancel the most buzzed about show even when the ratings aren't stellar. But the main force for programming decisions is still LIVE ratings. Online buzz can indirectly influence programming decisions IF it helps boost ratings. Social media activity may also help in situations when programmers are on the fence about one or more shows, in this case the most buzzed about show will likely be the one saved.

Winning contests and awards

Much like social media, it is another way for an under-performing show to get noticed. However, wining a couple of online polls won’t make a difference. Winning a LOT of online polls might. Awards like the People’s Choice may have a little more weight than online contests.

I don’t think it is a decisive factor, but winning a lot of contests, awards and polls is a sign that there is a devoted fan base which could lead to the show becoming a ‘cult-hit’. Cult-hits are always good because devoted fans tend to spend a lot of money on all sorts of related merchandise (DVDs, downloads, apparel, etc). Nevertheless, we know that not all cult-hits survive, and sometimes they are bound to be one season shows revered by generations to come.

A lot of online platforms host ‘Tubey awards’ where fans choose the winners through polls. Some of the most recognizable online TV sites are, TWOP and Eonline. Kristin Dos Santos from Eonline, has a ‘Save one show’ campaign each year (around April). I took a look at the winners of the past few years to see if they were actually ‘saved’.
  •          2012: Community – SAVED
  •          2011: Chuck – IT GOT ONE LAST ABBREVIATED SEASON
  •          2010: Chuck - SAVED
  •          2009: Terminator The Sarah Connor Chronicles - NOT SAVED
  •          2008: Could not find the winner for this year! If anyone knows, please let me know.
  •          2007: Veronica Mars/ Gilmore Girls – NOT SAVED /NOT SAVED

The Sarah Connor Chronicles
Well, as you can see it worked for some shows, not so much for others. And for the ones that were ‘saved’ it wouldn't be wise to conclude that they were actually saved by this poll. I also noticed, and I hope I am right, that programming executives are becoming more aware of online buzz. They seem to be paying at least a little bit of attention to fans’ online activities. Perhaps it is because of how ubiquitous social media platforms have become or the growth of online video delivery services… I don’t know. In summary, online polls may not be enough to save a show, but they may help as part of a larger initiative. It is always a good idea for fans to rally and vote.

Fan Stunts

Now here is the fun part. Fan stunts can take many forms, from Jericho fans sending peanuts to CBS to more recent ‘flash mob’ type gatherings for shows like Community. I searched the net for Fan Stunts all the way to the 60s (can you imagine coordinating one of these things without internet?) and I am happy to report that fan stunts actually have a good enough rate of success. In most cases shows were ‘saved’ for only a season or a few extra episodes… but still, it is better than nothing, right?

Here are some of the most interesting Fan Stunts I came across; most of the campaigns involve mailing stuff to the networks. Back in the day of original Star Trek, fans did a letter writing campaign. Since then, they have gotten more creative. Roswell fans mailed Tabasco bottles, light bulbs for Friday Night Lights and socks for Reaper. Chuck fans were even smarter. They went out and ate Subway sandwiches, one of the main advertisers of the show. You may say Subway saved Chuck. Chuck had the best product placement in the history of TV. It was simply hilarious, and it actually made me went out and get a sub at least a couple of times.

Of course for every successful campaign, there is another one that failed. Last year, fans of The Secret Circle did everything short of actually paying for the show to be produced. The CW cancelled it anyway and they failed to revive the show. You never know how programmers think, but I would imagine a well crafted stunt could go a long way.

The Secret Circle
So what’s going to happen with the ratings? We have been stuck with the same imperfect system for ages. Television consumption is evolving and networks are aware of this fact. However it will take them a while until they can effectively factor social media into their decisions. I want to believe that the programmer of the future will factor in ALL revenue sources for a TV show and that online viewership will be as important as live TV and so will social media buzz… at least we can hope right?

This was a very simplified guide into ratings. If you want to discuss a particular show or network leave a comment here or on our Facebook page:, or twitter @TVRepublik.
As usual all your input is appreciated!

Update 02/22/2013
Right on cue this article just came out! Nielsen Agrees to Expand Definition of TV Viewing

Here is an extract:

By September 2013, when the next TV season begins, Nielsen expects to have in place new hardware and software tools in the nearly 23,000 TV homes it samples. Those measurement systems will capture viewership not just from the 75 percent of homes that rely on cable, satellite and over the air broadcasts but also viewing via devices that deliver video from streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon, from so-called over-the-top services and from TV enabled game systems like the X-Box and PlayStation.
This is a huge deal! It could change the fate of many shows.

Media Programming” Eastman & Ferguson, 2010

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The TV Empress is a Media Management graduate, screenwriter in the making (and financial engineer in the meantime). She has serious plans to take over global television. You can follow the TVEmpress on twitter @TVRepublik

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  1. Interesting.. and, depressing :( wish I had a ratings meter :/ So, just to be *CRYSTAL* CLEAR, it makes NO difference if I watch my shows LIVE or not?

    1. No, Anita. If you don't have a meter what you watch sadly does not count towards the Nielsen Ratings.

      You can try to make your viewership count by trending on twitter, getting GET GLUE stickers and posting on Facebook. All that would count towards 'Social Impressions' measurements and hopefully it could make someone that actually has a meter watch.... but that's pretty much it. I know... it is a little depressing :(

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Great article! Really enjoyed reading it. It is simply inconceivable that after the internet and the social media have been around for quite a while, the people responsible for making the decisions concerning TV shows' survival still havent't come up with a better way to measure ACTUAL viewership. Unbelievable.


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