Monday, June 27, 2011

How Ratings Work

The rating can be a shows best friend or worst enemy. The rating system for television shows single-handedly determine whether or not a TV show continues or is cancelled. In the Must-See TV era and  earlier, it used to be that networks gave ample time for a freshman show to gain an audience. Both "Cheers" and "Seinfeld" were ratings bombs for NBC for its first couple of seasons. Now, many shows don't make it past its first season or better still, don't make it past its first few episodes. A few shows were even recently cancelled before they aired their pilot episode. The idea, today, is that the economy is still slugging along, broadcast networks are hemorrhaging audiences and most shows are just too expensive to produce. The consequence of all this is a ratings decline and the instant this happens, the show has to be cancelled. Broadcast networks are, and for some time, have been trying to figure out how to compete and give its shows an edge in order to equally compete with cable networks. There are a lot of supremely edgy and provocative shows on cable and broadcast networks are just trying to re-find its place in the television world. But, like everything else in life, it's cyclical. We will see another golden age in broadcast network television. Below are definitions of both ratings and shares:

RATING: Audience measurement unit representing the percent of the potential total audience tuned to a specific program or station.

By 1997's data there were an estimate of 98 million television household homes in the country. The rating is a percentage of the total television households. So a rating of 1.0 represents 1% of all TV homes or about 980,000. A rating of 12.5 or 12.5%, would of course, equal about 12,250,000 potential TV homes watching the program.

SHARE: A measurement for comparing audiences; represents the percentage of total viewing audience tuned to a given station. The share gives information specifically on the percentage of homes that are using their television (HUT).

HUT: The rating percentage for every minute of television when in use. The rating fluctuates throughout the day as people turn on and off their televisions.

The relationship between a rating, share and HUT can be plugged into an equation to determine missing data. If a rating is unknown, the share and HUT percentage can be taken and put into this equation:
                                                                   40 (S)                  5 (HUT)

In this case, 40 and 5 are multiplied together to make 200 and then divided by 100. The rating for this show becomes 2 or 2%.

Nielsen Media Research has been the primary company for recording ratings of TV shows. There have been other lesser known companies, but Nielsen has been far more successful and has since overtaken the market. Incidentally, Arbitron used to be one of these lesser known television rating companies, but has since moved on to recording ratings for radio stations.

Nielsen Media Research has employed several different kinds of methods for recording ratings for TV shows. When Nielsen Media Research began they had to first find a sample of the American population in which to get their data from. Originally, willing families were mailed surveys or "diaries" that required them to fill it out information about what shows they watched that week. These families were usually paid some nominal amount and become affectionately known as "Nielsen families." The "diary" method, however, was deemed inaccurate and biased. Since these were only mailed out in specific intervals to "Nielsen families", most people filling out the information forgot what they watched a week earlier and there was no way to prove what they actually watched. Surprisingly, this method is still being used by Nielsen, perhaps in very rural areas of the country, but much more high-tech ways of recording what people watch are more mainstream today. Since 1986, most "Nielsen families" today are set up with "people meters." This device is connected directly to the TV set and allows for viewing data to be separated by gender and age of each "Nielsen family." Each member of the family is assigned a certain viewing button where information like age and gender are pre-recorded. This method is, however, also likely to change in the next few years.

*Statistics, equations and definitions obtained from:

 Ferguson, D. & Walker, J. (1998). The Broadcast Television Industry. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon. (APA, baby!)

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