It's that time of the year again... when the ratings' panic hits me hard. It only seemed fitting to revisit my Nielsen ratings post and kick-start my crusade once again!

This is an updated version, the original article was posted on 02/21/2013 (you can read it HERE)

Chuck was perpetually on the verge of cancellation.
They had several fan campaigns and one of the most
creative ones involved fans actually going out and
buying Subway sandwiches (one of the advertisers) 

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?

Everybody 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 (Nielsen Box) 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 show. 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 was a low rated show & the network
didn't think it had a particularly strong fanbase. Seven
years after it was cancelled fans care about it so much
they broke fundraising records to get a follow up movie.
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. Since this season Nielsen is actually measuring twitter activity. How they do it and how much will programmers take it into account is still unknown. But this could be the start of a new an improved ratings system [Although I believe the ratings system won't significantly improve until Nielsen stops being a monopoly]

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.

BATB wins PCA. The 'certain to be cancelled' show was
renewed for a 2nd season despite not so great ratings. 
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 ‘Fan 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’.

  •     2013: Smash - NOT SAVED [but let's face it, shouldn't have been included on the list at all, it was as good as cancelled before the poll even started]
  •          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

Following in the footsteps of Firefly and
Dark Angel Terminator: The Sarah
Connor Chronicles was cancelled too soon
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 [and post cards with the 'hand' in another year], 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. A couple of years ago, 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.

Nikita survived with low ratings because it was a decent
performer on Friday nights. 

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!

You may also want to read:


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. Part 1: BATB ratings comment: I need this show to last a lot longer bc I love it: Ratings were always going to suffer on Mon. bc of the intense competition (yes worse than other nights bc of Sleepy Hollow, Football, Voice, DWTS (power houses)). These shows are hugely popular and also unique in that they are live shows where people want to see the results live bc they're sports shows and reality shows with winners so they are less likely to be dvred so other shows against them are more likely to be dvred. But other things contributed to this as well. The CW should promote the show more everywhere and promote how it has changed. Some people online are making comments like I didn't know it was back or when or what day it was on. This shouldn't be happening! I think the actors should live tweet more because Scandal was almost cancelled in the first season and Kerry got her cast together and was like let's do this and they have completely turned things around and now their ratings kiss butt (look it up!). I got an itunes season pass and it had the date of the season premiere wrong! I MEAN COME ON! How do you get that wrong on one of the many avenues people use to find out when a show starts. It's from the CW! It said Oct 10th (Thur), not Oct 7(Mon). PLus, the CW has low numbers overall bc it isn't shown in as many areas and it skews to younger audiences who don't watch tv live or on a tv, but online so #s on the cw will always be lower than other networks. Plus, the season premieres of all shows were down this year. I feel like shows used to get 4 million or 3 million something and now the highest rated shows only get like 2/2.5 million. 

  2. Part 2: so numbers in general are down and same with demo numbers (lots of .9s and .8s for season premieres and early season episodes when they are normally above 1). I think the Canada airing a day earlier doesn't help bc if one Nielsen viewer watches online because they want to see it earlier, it could really affect ratings I would think. I get that it is a co Canada production, but I still think that could hurt ratings, but no blame to Canada lol. The whole not reacting the whole season during the summer No excuse. That helps pick up new viewers for who are looking for new shows during the summer since nothing Was on and that could have really helped attract new people to batb. Outrageous and absurd. It honestly makes me think the network didn't want the show to succeed well this and the wrong iTunes season premiere date and the Monday night placement. Why would they not air season 1, but show repeats of another show? They showed ANTM reruns in that slot! Seriously please tell me why they chose to do that. I need to understand. Lol. Also, the DVD being released so late didn't help. Having it come out early in the summer would have helped leave time to get new viewers on board before the season 2 premiere. When they released it no one would have had the time to watch the whole season before the season 2 premiere. And no time to lend out DVD season packs to anyone! Additionally, it was on Netflix too late/close to the season 2 premiere. If it had come out earlier in the summer there then people could have had time to catch up before the premiere and be ready to watch the season 2 premiere. I'm not giving up on saving batb. I hope the network an studio realizes how diehard the fans are for this show. We can do this beasties! Batb must continue!


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