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SciFriday: Under 18? Over 49? You Still Matter

Yet another media move hurts television ratings

It’s one of those situations where you get blamed if something goes wrong, but forgotten if something goes right.

When a show gets cancelled, the first target for many people is The Nielsen Co., the research firm that has provided television ratings as long as television has existed. Because they loved the show, that means others must have loved it as well, and Nielsen simply got it wrong when counting the people.

But then, when a show gets renewed, there is praise, but not for Nielsen. I mean, you watched the show, and that means obviously other people watched the show, and “for once” Nielsen got it right.

It’s hard to look at what Nielsen does and understand the science behind it. How they can take about 25,000 homes and somehow make them represent hundreds of millions of homes. But they can do it, and it uses a science that has been proven time and time again in other polls, including that used in presidential elections. It’s not a perfect system, but it is the most practical, and one of the most accurate.

And like it or not, the numbers they compile play a huge role in the fate of a television series. Whether you like the message Nielsen delivers or not, you can’t ignore that they aren’t the ones that brought in the viewers (or told them to stay away). They are just the ones that are counting everyone. They are tracking the number of doughnuts sold, not vouching for the quality of the doughnuts.

Reporting about ratings has always been a bit of a tricky subject. When I first started doing it on this very site 15 years ago, people in the industry would warn me that ratings were a little too “inside baseball.” Sure, media outlets would talk about big ratings winners from time to time, but only Entertainment Weekly really included numbers on a weekly basis. And when other outlets did talk about ratings, they weren’t actually the ratings, but instead the millions of viewers that tuned in.

Except the process behind judging quality audience for television shows is not centered on the number of people who watched, but instead the number of households watching. And there is a reason for that. If you went by viewers only, family-oriented shows would have a huge head start over adult-oriented (or even kid-oriented) shows. That’s because a family show would have you, your spouse, and two kids watching. That’s four people right there.

But say “American Horror Story” comes on. You’re not exactly watching it with the kids (at least I hope not). Now you’re down to two people, and that’s if your spouse joins you. But does that make “American Horror Story” only half as popular as the family show you watched earlier with the kids?

No. And it shouldn’t.

So what does Nielsen count? Households. That means an apples-to-apples comparison. Instead of a 50 percent audience reduction between the family show and “American Horror Story,” you instead have an even result — one household for the family show, and one household for “American Horror Story.” Both were watched there, and both should have equal footing. And they get just that with Nielsen.

Back in the day, we wanted to be able to say whether a show would survive, or if it was threatened. We wanted to be able to look at the numbers the same way studio and network executives did, and try to come to similar conclusions. So we did what few other news outlets did at the time (for the record, we were not, by far, the first), we listed ratings and shares. I’d put up a 3.5/6, and people would have no idea what we were talking about (at least if I had put it up out of context, like I did here).

Nielsen ratings try to be as fair as possible in determining audiences. The rating (the 3.5 in this example) represented a percentage of households tuning in to a show. In this case, it’s 3.5 percent of total American households. That seems fair, right?

But what if it’s Christmas Eve, and many people are out at church or at social gatherings where they are not at home and the television’s aren’t turned on? Would household percentages be fair?

That’s where the share comes in, the “6” in the example. This is a rounded percentage of the number of households tuned into the show that had their televisions on. Yes, believe it or not, America is never all watching television at the same time. And if there is something going on where less people might be watching (or more), the share gives an accurate account of the number of people who actually had an opportunity to tune into your show, and either chose to, or chose not to.

This is a long explanation of ratings, I know. And it’s not even the point I’m making. But I do feel that the more people explain how ratings work, the more people understand ratings, and understand its key role in our television entertainment society.

I also hope it helps people understand that the ratings buck does not stop for people younger than 18, and for people older than 49. Yet, that’s how some news outlets portray it. That if you’re 16 or you’re 55, what you watch doesn’t matter.

Yes, the advertising industry has made it clear they would pay premium rates to reach that audience, so I can understand the attention. But it’s not the be-all, end-all of television ratings. People outside that demographic buy things too, and sometimes more readily than those in the 18-49 age bracket.

We have always maintained on our sites that while we may mention from time to time how the age bracket is doing, our overall position is that every viewer counts. Not just those who are in college, just starting out in the careers, or just about to suffer from empty-nest syndrome. And even some networks and cable channels agree. CBS, for example, just renewed nearly its entire current slate of shows — and they are not major 18-49 leaders, and in fact, don’t care about that demographic.

Yet, I bet Les Moonves is counting plenty of money he’s receiving from advertising.

I say all this now because we have been able to get the ratings numbers we need from network television through a website that had an agreement with Nielsen and published those numbers. But either that agreement has changed, or is now gone, and what’s left are demographic ratings that don’t tell the whole story.

Is that what you, as a reader, are interested in? Just part of the story? You know, like, “The Roman Catholic Church has named a new Pope today.” You look for the rest of the story, including who the new Pope is, and there’s nothing there.

That’s what talking only about 18-49 numbers is in the ratings world. It gives you the announcement there’s a Pope, but it doesn’t give you anything else. It’s only part of the story, utilizing a single tool used to help paint the whole picture, but is not the whole picture.

I don’t see other outlets as “competitors,” but more as fellow journalists trying to spread compelling stories that readers should know about. Maybe I’m too old school, being a part of journalism back in the day when we physically had to paste newspapers together. But journalism is about telling the whole story, not part of it.

And it’s hard to respect or even accept most media’s sole focus on 18-49 as being the whole story.

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Could they be a Rut-ro! Shaggy
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