A quick guide to boost online ratings and understand TV show revenue sources

Fall season is here, which means it is time for me to have a panic attack due to possible TV show cancellations. A few years ago I would have simply tried to prepare for the potential loses because there was not much we, the fans, could do against the dreaded ratings. However, TV is changing. The way we watch TV is changing and the new distribution methods are making it possible for some shows to survive even with not so stellar ratings [look at The Carrie Diaries for God’s sake!].

In this post I will summarize everything I know about alternative platforms and I’ll try to be as realistic as I can about their impact.

Live, Live + 7 – to DVR or not to DVR

Fringe is a notorious example of a low rated show that
got renewed over others [possibly] due to DVR playback,
however not many examples like this exist. The only other
show to be renewed with lower live ratings was Blue
Bloods & both were Friday shows (Zannier, 2012) 
OK, so this is an “Anti-Nielsen” post, but before we move on to other ways of viewership let’s go over some aspects of the actual ratings:

A lot of you know this already but in case you are new to TV Metrics it is worth mentioning it again: If you are lucky enough [or unlucky depending on how you see it] to be in a Nielsen household, your TV preferences actually MATTER. If you don’t have a Nielsen Box (or diary), it is completely irrelevant what you watch on your TV. Most of us are on the second group and, sadly, we can’t have a direct impact on ratings [but we can hope to indirectly influence them via social media, more on that later]

However If you ARE a Nielsen viewer you MUST watch live! Advertisers may agree to take into account DVR + 3 (AKA Live+3/ C3) ratings but no more than that. All those press releases telling you that this or that show doubled its audience by XX% after 7 days of playback sound great… but sadly there is NO evidence that Live + 7 ratings influence programming decisions [And YES I have the math to prove this] (Zannier, 2012 p.92). So… if we are focusing on ratings, LIVE ratings are the ones that matter because they are the currency for ad sales (Live + 3 are acceptable).

And while we are on the subject of ratings, I want to reiterate that all those prediction sites have absolutely no decision power over what gets picked up or not. When they say a show is “certain to be cancelled” that DOES NOT mean it will get cancelled or that they have any inside information. It simply means the ratings data indicate the show will ‘most likely’ be cancelled. And that’s another thing to consider, these predictions use a mathematical model based solely on ratings, no other variables are taken into account. Ratings are the only metric made public, but programmers consider [or should] other qualitative and quantitative data which isn’t available to the public.

While prediction sites are most often than not accurate, they are not the final word. So no reason to freak out every time those cancel/renewal indexes are posted [or to argue with the people who make them, they are just crunching numbers with an acceptable standard error]. They do make a lot of mistakes too, unexpected renewal/cancellations happen all the time.

So let’s forget about Nielsen and let’s talk about what we CAN actually do as fans:

Online  Streaming

If you are among the majority of viewers and don’t have a Nielsen meter, you can help your show by watching it online LEGALLY [with ads]. If you download it from one of those illegal sites like beststreams, putlocker, etc. you ARE NOT helping anyone. Where can you legally watch a show online?

1)      The network’s website. This is the best and most direct way to boost online ratings. So if you want to watch a CW show you would head over to http://www.cwtv.com/ an ABC show http://abc.go.com/ and so on…
2)      HULU  is a third party website that carries most TV shows from ABC, NBC, CW and FOX [not CBS]. It is a bit of a mystery how they split the earnings and who keeps track of the viewership data; but somehow advertising money changes hands. However, watching a show on the network’s website is still the most direct way and probably the most profitable for the content owners [which is what we want].

Let’s say you don’t have time to watch the same episode 5 times [yes I said 5+] a week… That’s the beauty of online playback… you can just leave it playing in the background and continue with your day [just don’t tell the advertisers that!].

One more thing to remember: Most online ads are sold on a “Pay per click” basis, which means advertisers only pay when someone clicks on the ads. So, try to always click on the ads while watching your show online.

What if I don’t live in the US?

The networks’ websites and Hulu only work inside the US, but THAT DOES NOT MEAN YOU CAN’T HELP OUT YOUR FAVOURITE SHOW IF YOU ARE AN INTERNATIONAL VIEWER. All you need is a VPN adapter and you are ready to go! You can download TUNNELBEAR for free in 5 min or less, it’s really easy to use, it doesn’t hurt your computer and it is legal. Once you download tunnelbear, turn it on to the US and you can go stream your favorite show in no time.

Paid Downloads – iTunes – Amazon Instant Video

Another way for shows to make money are paid downloads on (iTunes and Amazon). Usually content owners get around 70% of the revenue (SNL Kagan). Nowadays downloads are available the day after the show airs, so if you REALLY want to help out a show and you don’t have a Nielsen meter, paying for a download might be the next best thing. You are basically donating 1.4 USD each time you buy an episode. And money is always good. It is also possible to buy Amazon and iTunes episodes if you live outside the US, so don’t let that stop you!


Netflix doesn’t stream current seasons of TV shows, but they do have older seasons. The window from TV to Netflix is becoming shorter and shorter. Netflix is REALLY important because 1) It pays insanely high license fees to the content owners and 2) It is a great way to recruit new viewers. So, even if you have watched all the episodes of your favourite show live and online more times than you can count… streaming it on Netflix once it is up there is always good. Popular shows appear on the homepage and more people may check them out. Also be sure to leave an intelligent, well worded review and vote ‘useful’ on all the good reviews and ‘Not useful’ on all the bad ones. It takes less than 5 min to do all this.

Netflix doesn’t make all the details of its deals public, but just to give you an idea, in the past few years Netflix paid CBS around 2,000,000 USD  for a two year streaming contract, 175,000,000 USD to ABC Family for 1 year and an exorbitant  1,000,000,000 USD to the CW for a 4 year period (SNL Kagan). According to Di Grazia (2011) a CW show may generate between 150,000 USD and 700,000 USD per episode depending on its popularity. In comparison an average CW ad spot costs around 68,000 USD (Economics of TV, 2007) [low rated shows only get around 20,000 USD per spot (Steinberg, 2013)] with 16 -19 spots per hour (Economics of TV 2007).

Another thing to mention here: Online popularity IS NOT directly correlated to ratings. For example CW shows have more downloads than CBS shows [which have the highest ratings of all networks] (Zannier, 2012)


The bad thing about DVD sales is that they are a delayed revenue stream. However, if  your show is on a second, third or fourth season, buying the DVD for previous seasons is always a plus. The funny thing about DVD sales is that the highest rated shows are rarely the ones with biggest home-video sales! Procedurals and Reality TV shows (which have great ratings) have awful DVD sales. The best performers in the home-video market are serialized cable shows and broadcast TV is represented by the smaller nets PBS and CW (Zannier, 2012). Buying DVDs is not the most direct approach but it is definitely good. Also consider giving out DVDs as gifts to your family and friends, you help the show by spending money on it and it may gain new fans!

Social Media

Social Media is becoming increasingly important for TV shows. The actual impact of social media on programming decisions is unclear at the moment. Nielsen started measuring twitter activity this year. Will programmers even care? Who knows… perhaps they will, perhaps they won’t. At the very least it will be an added measure that will nag them in the back of their heads [  “X or Y show has awful ratings, but the twitter activity is off the charts! Am I sure I want to cancel it?”]

The networks that skew younger [CW, ABC Family] may be more susceptible to these new metrics and I can almost guarantee advertisers are already working out a way to profit from twitter/facebook/getglue activity… so TWEET TWEET TWEET. Putting Nielsen ratings and statistics aside, tweeting, being active on facebook and get glue is ALWAYS good because it is a form of SPREADING THE WORD about a TV show, creating the impression that something is “must see” and maybe getting actual viewers with Nielsen meters to watch. You never know… The more creative the social media campaigns… the bigger the chance for a small underdog show to get “noticed”.

 What about the polls?

OK, so polls don’t really matter… but they sort of do. Mr. Programmer X is not going to renew a show because it wins a lot of online polls… but winning A LOT of polls can create recognition for a particular show around the online community. If the same show keeps popping up as a winner across the internet communities, people are going to start wondering ‘what is all the fuzz about?’ and any buzz is good buzz.

Same goes for more established poll voting awards like the Teen Choice Awards and People Choice Awards. They are obviously more important than an E!online poll because they are actually televised awards. Same principle applies, Mr. Programmer X probably won’t change his cancellation prone heart because a show won a minor award, but if that little show wins several categories surprising everybody and making headlines left and right… that IS harder to ignore.

I guess what I am saying is… for fan initiatives to actually work the scale has to be significant, the whole idea is to convince Mr.Programmer that there are a LOT of fans out there that can potentially be milked for money.

If you have ANY more questions about ratings, programming, syndication, home video or anything at all please ask me. I’ll answer to the extent of my knowledge and will research anything that I don’t know!

You may also want to read

(I've just posted an updated version)


Di Grazia, P. (2011). Netflix's future is in TV. SNL Kagan, Retrieved from

Economics of TV programming and syndication. (2007). Charlottesville, VA: SNL

Steinberg, B. (2013). ‘Scandal’, ‘Chicago Fire’, ‘Supernatural’…  Variety, Retrieved from http://variety.com/2013/tv/news/scandal-chicago-fire-supernatural-command-more-ad-cash-from-sponsors-when-many-shows-cant-1200785699/

Washenko, A. (2013). From twitter to get glue, social media chatter is saving live TV. Sprouts Insights, Retrieved from https://sproutsocial.com/insights/2013/04/social-media-tv/

Zannier, A. (2012). Financial Analysis of Broadcast TV Programming 

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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. Thank you so much for clarifying this. I'm not from US and i got all kind of info which are so confusing!

    1. You are welcome Sue! If you have any more questions feel free to ask me and I will answer to the extent of my knowledge

  2. Great article - thank you! I'll share a link on my website.

  3. Very interesting and well researched. I watch on Hulu Plus, but the down side to that is the latest episodes are not posted immediately. I do buy the episodes from Amazon, but daily watch #BATB on the CW. Thanks for the tip on clicking on ads!

    1. Great! You are doing everything you can! If u have Netflix the show can be streamed there as well... but I think the most important online window is the CW website and to be active on twitter.... plus, it's fun, right? And thanks for reading!

  4. Shared on Tumblr ! It's such a great article ! THANK YOU !

    1. TY darling :) Hope it helps clear some stuff up, specially for international viewers...

  5. Thanks for the info! Very details! Hope no more cancellations on my favorite TV series. I am an international viewer.

    1. You are welcome Ed :) Where do you live and what is your favorite show? if you don't mind me asking...

  6. I have Xfinity and I watch my show batb every day on demand, that count???

    1. Don't think it does, since it doesn't affect Nielsen ratings... but sometimes networks use additional data which could include MSO (that would be Xfinity in your case) numbers... however I think you could help more by watching it online on the CW or Hulu and/or downloading from Amazon iTunes

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