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Outdated and Misrepresented: Why the Nielsen Ratings Should Be Cancelled
By Jon White, Multimedia Reporter
For fans of television shows, there are few feelings that bring more ire than when a show you love is cancelled. It is awful to have something you enjoy immensely be taken from you; it is like when a child has their favourite toy taken away from them. When a toy is taken away from a child though, it is generally used as a form of punishment. Similarly, when a viewer has their favourite show taken away, there are feelings of betrayal, anger, and of being punished. The main culprit for these show cancellations is the Nielsen Media Research Group, a firm that measures what shows are being watched so that networks know what to charge for advertising time. However, this form of measurement is supremely outdated and needs to change, as television is at the mercy of a biased and unbalanced system.
The Nielsen Media Research Group monitors the viewing habits of families, then from there figures out the percentage of households that watch the show during a specific time slot. For example, if 15% of viewers tune in and watch a show exclusively while 20% of people tuned in during anytime the time slot, a rating of 15/20 is awarded. In other words, roughly a fifth of households were watching that particular show during that time frame. But how many households are actually tapped into the Nielsen system? Roughly 50,000. When put into perspective of how many people there are in America, 320, 000, 000, that is roughly 0.15% of the population being represented. That is a mindboggling unbalanced ratio, as there are a substantial number of people that are not being represented. Shows hinge on the hope that less than 1% of the population watches the show. These numbers are tracked by a Nielsen box that tracks what is on the screen, but the researchers also have families keep diaries of what they watch. These diaries are then submitted to the firm for research.
Those families may not be the best means of gauging what is popular. For example, one ex-member of the Nielsen family wrote, “Did I really want to reveal that much of myself even to these Nielsen strangers? Was I really going to admit to watching the six-hour Dog the Bounty Hunter marathon on A&E last Saturday? Was I going to disclose the fact that every night before going to bed I watched Crossing Over with John Edward on the Sci-Fi Network? Do I admit that sometimes, yes, I do get sucked into infomercials?” While some families may actually be honest with the firm, there is the risk that people worry about picking the “uncool” shows. With this, there is the risk that results are skewered to feed into the more popular shows. Here is a list of the Nielsen shows’ ratings from this past week:
1. NCIS, CBS, 17.1 million
2. Dancing With the Stars, ABC, 15.4 million
3. NCIS: Los Angeles, CBS, 14.2 million
4. The Voice (Monday), NBC,13.5 million
5. The Walking Dead, AMC, 13.5 million
6. The Voice (Tuesday), NBC, 13.3 million
7. 60 Minutes, CBS, 11.3 million
8. The Black List, NBC, 11.0 million
9. Person of Interest, CBS, 10.9 million
10. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CBS, 10.2 million
11. Criminal Minds, CBS, 10.1 million
12. Castle, ABC, 10.0 million
13. American Idol (Wednesday), Fox, 9.8 million
14. Resurrection, ABC, 9.5 million
15. Survivor, CBS, 9.5 million
16. The Good Wife, CBS, 9.1 million
17. Scandal, ABC, 9.1 million
18. The Amazing Race, CBS, 8.7 million
19. 20/20, ABC, 8.5 million
20. American Idol(Thursday), Fox, 8.4 million
There is an overwhelming sense of familiarity with these shows, as the list is dominated by reality TV shows. Reality shows are popular in family households, as they are generally safe viewing for the whole family. However, in this technological age, things such as personal video recorders (PVRs) record shows so that one can watch them later when the family is not around. For example, Top Gear airs in the same time slot as The Voice, but Top Gear is aimed at a more specific audience. One can PVR Top Gear, and then watch it after the family is done watching The Voice. In this regard, Top Gear is not being recognized by the Nielsen ratings box, so it is not counted. The PVR seems like an obvious source of information of shows being watched, as people’s busy schedules often let them watch the shows they want to see on their own schedule. The days of having to sit in front of the television at a specific time to catch a particular show is long gone. With the digital age, there are countless ways to stay current and watch the shows you want to see.
Netflix has a firm grasp on what viewers see, so they can keep the popular shows coming. Netflix’s owners know the exact number of people who have watched a particular program, although they keep that information top secret. Regardless, the owners know how many people have signed in and watched The Walking Dead, so they can continue to bring the series to viewers so long as AMC makes the show. This is a factor that should go into TV ratings, as shows can have life long after they have initially aired. It is clear than an entire viewer demographic is being overlooked by the Nielsen ratings. Look at Netflix’s original programs such as House of Cards and Orange is the New Black; shows that went over well so they are returning with more episodes making Netflix its own platform for television series. Considering Netflix has over 44 million viewers and that every single one has their viewing habits monitored, Nielsen could stand to upgrade its means to get a more accurate representation of what his being watched.
Still, as much as numbers are important, it all comes down to advertising. The numbers that Nielsen finds help to gauge what networks can charge for ad-time. However, the digital age has made traditional commercials obsolete. Unless you are tuning in to a show live, you can always bypass the advertisements when you watch it later on your PVR. There are also many shows that can be streamed and watched from services sponsored by the network, which are ad-free. Also, there are a few cable channels, such as HBO and Showtime, that do not have advertisements, and instead rely on subscriptions from viewers to fund the network (just like Netflix). By being able to bypass commercials through these various means, is it not about time that networks restructure programs and money for advertising? Product placement has been going on for decades and has been a multi-billion dollar industry, so perhaps this is the type of advertising that networks should focus on. With that shift of focus, coupled with a more accurate and balanced means of measuring viewers’ habits, more shows may be saved from the graveyard.
The Nielsen’s archaic system of measurement has doomed countless television shows and has left plenty of viewers angry and unsatisfied. Over the past decade, there has been little change in how the Nielsen’s are adjusting to the digital age. Recently, they have mentioned they notice traffic on twitter, but again, this can lead to biasedness as a group of people can simply spam-talk about a show to help boost the ratings. With the current technologies available, especially the ability to purchase episodes from iTunes or marketplaces set up on the PlayStation 3/PlayStation 4 and Xbox 360/Xbox One, there are lots of faucets for people to get their TV show fix. Digital purchases send money directly to the production company, cutting out any middleman while attaining the raw numbers for how many people are watching the show. With these digital means quickly becoming the norm, while more accurately representing the viewing public, the Nielsen’s, and their 50,000 candidates, are sorely out of date. Consumers are constantly moving forward to keep up with technology, so it is time for the Nielsen’s to do the same.