The Nielsen Rating System’s Downfalls

by Sammie Crowley

The Nielsen rating system’s ability to correctly estimate the total number of viewers for a program has been called into question many times before. Viewers want to be counted and they want their opinions to be known, as part of the effort to encourage better programming. A major problem with the current Nielsen system is that it only takes into account live television numbers while the world of internet viewing and DVR technology is exploding therefore comprising a large chunk of all television viewers. Standard quantitative Nielsen data is no longer enough for broadcasters to make informed decisions about their programming. In order to keep up with a changing technological front that gives viewers more freedom and power than ever, the Nielsens need to take into account qualitative feedback, online media and live television numbers, and consider fan devotion in an expanding world of fan culture.

Cultural studies are about finding meaning in television programs (O’Donnell 149). Viewers form a relationship with programs and interpret them to find a meaning that is suitable for them (O’Donnell 149). Viewers must process what is presented to them on television and call on their previous life experiences to make sense of situations (Alcock). It is imperative to mentally process television in order to fully understand and grasp subtle plot changes as well as keep tabs on characters and motivations (Alcock).

An individual needs to have certain experiences to appreciate most television situations (Gibert 1). One has to apply his or her cultural knowledge to understand and identify with characters, leading to a rich television experience (Gibert 1). If a viewer is appropriately engaged he or she can derive a variety of meanings from simple exchanges and scenes (O’Donnell 150). A viewer also has to have knowledge of the medium and be able to determine the difference between what is constructed on television and what is real in life (Gibert 2).

When a viewer watches television, at the very least, he or she is interpreting the language that is spoken. Television uses certain patterns and one must be well versed in the subtleties that help distinguish what is relevant to the plot and what is extraneous information (Gibert 2). Interpretation is the key to enjoying television, as the viewer enjoys noticing patterns and being able to guess where the plot is heading (Gibert 4).

Raymond Williams is a key contributor to cultural studies (O’Donnell 151). He was a professor at Cambridge University who believed that an individual cultural work should never be taken on its own, but rather must be considered in the context of all works in a particular culture (O’Donnell 151).

The way an individual interprets the medium can be heavily impacted by who they are watching the program with, where he/she is watching it and whether or not he/she chose to watch it (Alcock). If an individual ritually watches a specific show at a specific time he/she will pay much closer attention to it than if it was simply stumbled upon when channel surfing (Gibert 4). A viewer who is watching a program that someone else selected is more likely to criticize the program: he or she will look for flaws and not pay as close attention as normal because someone else selected that show (Alcock). If a person watches a program with others he/she is more likely to react more harshly and vocalize their thoughts and opinions (Alcock).

Gender, sexual orientation, national origin and religion are some of the personal attributes that impact how we interpret television (Gilbert 4). If the viewer agrees with the dominant ideology he is likely to interpret the meaning that the creator had intended (O’Donnell 153). Hegemony describes the representation of these social norms and is an important term in cultural studies. It refers to the set of values and beliefs that encompasses a society so completely that it is regarded as normal and the obvious way of life (O’Donnell 153). Hegemony gives one group dominance over all the other groups (O’Donnell 153).

In a represented social society there are three types of social positions for decoding symbols presented in media (O’Donnell 155). A dominant position means that the viewer decodes the creator’s intended meaning; an oppositional position means that the viewer takes the opposite view from the creator; and the negotiated position holds a view somewhere between agreeing with the intended meaning and the oppositional position (O’Donnell 155).

Cultural studies, and more specifically how a viewer interprets the media, are important in deciphering how programs are enjoyed. The viewer has to interpret the program favorably to enjoy it and if he or she agrees with the dominant ideology, the audience member will relate to the show and find it enjoyable. Connecting with the program is important for qualitative ratings; if a viewer decodes the show in a way he/she finds enjoyable; he or she is more likely to rate the show highly.

There has been growing concern about the validity and usefulness of data gathered by the Nielsen rating system. Skeptics have suggested that some of the Nielsen data is even artificially created, while others worry about its validity in assessing demographics because only about thirty-five percent of statistics gathered are counted and considered usable. The Nielsen ratings are based on a representative sample with randomly selected houses, referred to as basic units (Milavsky 102 -106).

If a household that is randomly selected refuses to enter the program, a household that is geographically close and similar in number of children (or lack of children) will be recruited in its place (Milavsky 106). The people recruited must be a fairly accurate representation of nearby households, in terms of family makeup, as well as what kinds of cable and television technology they have (DVRs, satellites, etc) (Milavsky 107). Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to maintain a representative sample as sixty-two percent of people leave the Nielsen program every year, two-thirds of those people exit the program early due to non-compliance or moving (Milavsky 109).

The new household added, either an alternate house or the tenants of a former Nielsen home, brings new demographics, which corrupt the supposedly representative sample (Milavsky 107). In addition, Nielsen is continually cycling in more families to try and make up for the extremely high dropout and noncompliance rate, which often creates an imbalance in geographical representation (Milavsky 106). The belief that any person’s television viewing habits can be arbitrarily replaced with those of a person of roughly the same age and gender is questionable. The rating system insinuates that all viewers in the same category will have similar taste in shows without attempting to categorize people by their taste and program type preference.

The Nielsen “people-meter” system has members of the family plug in their individual code to log themselves as watching a given program (Milavsky 103). This log in must be repeated if the channel is changed or after seventy minutes on the same channel to indicate the person is still watching (Milavsky 103). An immediate problem with this system is figuring out how to deal with a viewer who is in and out of the room or present but not actively watching the television (Milavsky 109). Another problem is contending with guest; if a guest is watching television at a Nielsen home they are prompted to indicate their age and sex to log their viewership. All of this means that they know they are viewing in a Nielsen home, which in and of itself corrupts the data (Milavsky 110).

The Nielsen system is complex, but incomplete. Even their raw numerical statistics are suspected to be corrupt and most avid television viewers do not think that a representative sample taken from selected viewers, who often fail to participate, is enough to indicate how many people are actually watching a show. In a world with such advanced technology it seems that the Nielsens should expand to include as many people as possible, gathering a more accurate sample. There are many more problems with the Nielsens but one of the largest complaints is that it just delivers raw data and has no room for a qualitative scale.

All over the world there has been an increasing desire for a qualitative feedback system in addition to standard quantitative ratings. Ratings take into consideration anyone who is present when the show is playing, but fails to take into account how engaged the viewers are. Because there is no distinction between which programs the audience actively watches and which they simply play in the background, many believe that the current ratings system is inadequate. Qualitative figures will be a necessity as television develops and diversifies over different platforms and over many channels. As more channels come into existence, audience fragmentation is likely to occur as more channels leads to more viewing options. More viewing options will also lead to more “channel-grazing”, where the viewer can attempt to watch multiple programs at once by flipping between them, a practice which is very difficult to measure in the current Nielsen system (Gunter).

As the market expands it will be imperative for broadcasters to understand what engages the viewers’ attention and which programs have strong loyalty and viewers who are liable to watch repeat viewings. Learning how viewers enjoy a program is a great way to predict if the viewer is likely to watch the program the next time it airs and the subsequent episodes every week. A viewer with a high appreciation score of a show is the most likely to be an avid viewer whom the broadcasters can rely on to tune in every week. Also, avid viewers of one type of program are also more likely to tune into a different program of the same type (Gunter).

Broadcasters would benefit from a qualitative and more informative ratings system, in part because it would help them to characterize the audience for the advertisers, letting them know who the audience is that they are reaching (Gunter). Also, the advertisers would find it useful to know how the program that they are advertising during is being received (Gunter). The reception correlates positively with the products advertised; if a program has high viewer intensity and positive reaction, the audience is more likely to go out and purchase items that were advertised (Gunter).

Those in favor of a qualitative system believe it is totally feasible to create a system bench marked by quality ratings from the viewers. In the United Kingdom the Audience Reaction Indices have been taking qualitative measures from the audience and supplying them to the broadcaster as a way of adding to the straight statistical ratings data. This has become a common practice in Europe and many other countries are beginning to supplement raw data with qualitative feedback (Gunter).

Some broadcasters have been resistant to the idea of qualitative ratings. They claim that the ratings system is already complex enough and deals with advertisers already include extensive formulas that would be impossible to relate to subjective non-numerical data. Broadcasters also believe that qualitative reactions would be too difficult to collect (Gunter).

While quantifying qualitative data will not be simple, it has the possibility to revolutionize the way that broadcasters look at their programming. If the networks could be more informed about their programs, they could make better decisions on which programs to retain and which to cancel. As viewers get more opportunities to choose which programming they watch it will become more important to make programs that are well received.

Networks view ratings as a way of gauging the taste of their target audience (McDonald 64). The most successful broadcasters try to constantly update their programming so they are always in tune with changing audience taste, they stick with program formats and types which are popular or becoming popular and try to stay on trend (McDonald 63). While they have become something that plays a huge role in television, program types were created to help networks and advertisers define types of programs that could reach the same audience as other popular programs.

The way people watch television and interact with the media has been changing rapidly. Beginning with the ability to record shows on a VCR, technology has advanced to digital video recorders (DVR) which allow people to be less bound to traditional television schedules (Bowen 573). Along with DVR technology, using the internet as a way to view television media has skyrocketed (Greenfield 72). Hulu and CBS.com are examples of two video services which are run by broadcasters and have made their shows available, on demand, to anyone with high speed internet (Greenfield 72). This technology has been expanding and many believe that streaming on-demand video is the future (Greenfield 73). Apple and Roku have both released devices that connect the computer to the television, allowing those who own the product to stream video onto their regular television, rather than watching it on a computer monitor (Greenfield 73).

In addition to streaming video to television, video on portable devices has become increasingly popular. It is becoming more and more common to have shows within reach at all times, either through an iPod or a cell phone. Being able to have television on a cell phone plays into the idea that anyone can access the information he or she wants wherever he/she is and whenever he/she wants (Greenfield 75). Despite the diversification of media across different platforms some still contend that television is the “mothership” of all TV (Palser 70), and claim that views from these sources do not need to be accounted for. While most traditional programs are still watched on live television, younger generations continue to look to the internet in instances where older generations looked to the television. Things like weather, sports scores, news and more are being sought out more and more frequently on the internet (Palser 70).

With the limitlessness of the internet providing consumers with endless options, it becomes even more important to put out a good product. People can be increasingly selective in what they choose to watch and with DVRs and Hulu, they can make a concerted effort to catch certain programs regardless of time constraints (Greenfield 73).

Television being viewed on the internet has huge implications for the way ratings are tabulated. While there are individual ways of measuring these, there is no definitive system for combining television ratings with views online. There is also a diversification among the way that shows are viewed; streaming videos from the broadcasters’ websites, purchasing shows from iTunes, as well as illegal downloaded torrents of shows. All of these people are watching the show and should be counted in a ratings system, but are often overlooked.

There have been attempts in the past to make sense of all of these figures. NBC tried a system called TAMi, Total Audience Measurement Index. This index combined traditional television ratings from the Nielsens, data from web and mobile use from Ominture, and information from Rentrak for video on demand. They boasted that it was a new way to follow ratings over several platforms, but they failed to develop it and went back to primarily considering Nielsen ratings (Palser 70).

Another avenue that broadcasters should consider is web activity related to their programming. Viewers can now venture online, expanding their total television experience, and bringing water cooler talk to the next level. The audience is now able to go on the internet and get a more in-depth experience with character blogs, detailed plot summaries, and sometimes even games. These opportunities have extended television’s role in viewers’ lives, making them more active consumers than they have ever been (Bowen 571). Television is no longer limited to the screen, but instead can extend to franchises and merchandising (Sandler 84).

Networks would benefit from considering the level of audience involvement, as it is a great predictor of future viewings. Week to week, new shows get back less than fifty percent of the audience they had the week before (Barrett 5), making it important to have a dedicated fan base. Devoted fans are not only more likely to continue watching new episodes, but are also likely to purchase DVD sets and merchandise, all of which make money for the network. Avid fans are also more likely to become fans of other similar shows on the same network, leading to a more consistent overall audience. If networks can learn to cultivate dedicated fan bases for their shows they will find that other areas of their business will become more profitable.

Fans in the past have also launched campaigns to save their shows. In 2009 there was a “Save Chuck” campaign that involved the fans of Chuck going to Subway (an advertiser in the show) and purchasing subs on the day of the season finale (Save Chuck). This movement was intended to show advertisers the buying power of fans. While renewing Chuck after this campaign has not necessarily paid off for NBC, as the ratings have not increased, it led to a stronger product placement deal with Subway. NBC also cultivated some network loyalty by responding to fans (Save Chuck).

Fan loyalty is key in maintaining a stable network. If broadcasters can learn to use the online world and fan culture to their advantage, to build hype and word of mouth exchange amongst fans, they could reap the benefits. Fans culture can immerse viewers into the world on a new level causing others to become curious over what all of the fuss is about.

The Nielsen homes represent a tiny portion of the actual country. The idea that this small sample could possibly be representative of the entire nation is ludicrous. If the Nielsens refuse to update to include quality responses, DVR, and online media numbers, the least they could do would be to start counting a much wider sample of people, if not everyone. The technology exists for every person to have a Nielsen box or for the Nielsens to directly connect to a cable box and get their numbers information via that mechanism. The Nielsen Rating system needs to make serious changes in order to better serve the networks and the people.

Sammie Crowley is a senior at Columbia College Chicago studying writing for television. She developed a special interest in the Nielsens in 2007 when it seemed all her favorite shows were perpetually on the brink of cancellation. Fascinated by the way the numbers worked, she quickly began to notice flaws in the way they were construed. She has since become obsessed with checking ratings and waits impatiently every week to hear the Chuck overnight numbers.

Works Cited

Alcock, Katrina. “In What Ways is Watching TV an Active Process of Interpretation Rather Than a Passive Process of ‘Assimilating Information’?” Active TV Viewer. Apr. 1997. Web. 22 Feb. 2010.

Barrett, Marianne. “The Relationship of Network Affiliation Change to Prime Time Program Ratings.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 43.1 (1999): 98. Academic Search Premier. Web. 25 Mar. 2010.

Bowen, Tracey. “Romancing the Screen: An Examination of Moving from Television to the World Wide Web in a Quest for Quasi-Intimacy.” Journal of Popular Culture. 41.4 (2008): 569-90. Academic Search Premier. Web. 27 Mar. 2010.

Gibert, Marie. “Watching Television of Film as an Active Process of Interpretation.” May 2003. Web. 22 Feb. 2010.

Greenfield, Howard, and Wes Simpson. “2009 IPTV Update.” SMPTE Motion Imaging Journal 118.6 (2009): 72-75. Computers & Applied Sciences Complete. Web. 25 Mar. 2010.

Gunter, Barrie. “On the Future of Television Ratings.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 37.3 (1993):359-65. Academic Search Premier. Web. 25 Mar. 2010.

McDonald, Daniel G., and Russell Schechter. “Audience Role in the Evolution of Fictional Television Content.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 32.1 (1988): 61-71. Academic Search Premier. Web. 25 Mar. 2010.

Milavsky, Ronald J. “How Good is the A.C. Nielsen People-Meter System?” Public Opinion Quarterly 56.1 (1992): 102-15. Academic Search Premier. Web. 25 Mar. 2010.

O’Donnell, Victoria. Television Criticism. Minneapolis: Sage Publications, Inc, 2007. Print.

Palser, Barb. “Measuring Across Platforms.” American Journalism Review 30.5 (2008): 70. Academic Search Premier. Web. 25. 2010.

Sandler, Kevin. “Teaching Media Convergence.” Cinema Journal 48.3 (2009) 84-87. Academic Search Premier. Web. 25 Mar. 2010. Save Chuck. CNN. 5 Aug. 2009. Web.

9 thoughts on “The Nielsen Rating System’s Downfalls

  1. Although I agree with the flaws in the Nielsen ratings, you have to keep in mind that for one, the process in which Nielsen gathers those numbers and statistics is not very “user friendly” for the family doing it. Could you imagine having to type in a number every time you change the channel or watch a show that is over 70 mins? I would quit within a week. Second you should take into consideration the every changing field that depends on these ratings, advertising. With each day that passes more and more companies are turning away from television and moving to viral and web, because it is much more engaging to the consumer and can create “brand loyalty. So to say that Nielson needs to get a bigger demographic or come up with new technology to measure the amount of “engagement” that a consumer has with a product or service is basically impossible. In the what I call “naked era” were everybody and everything can be seen and reviewed, once you put out a product, its up to the consumer and the suggestions from their friends via; Facebook, Yelp, Twitter, blogs, and many more outlets, to determine how much time, money, and “engagement” a consumer will use on that product.

    So, although I like your “cited” information about many more things then just Nielson, I would say to look at the full marketing landscape and what’s to come before knocking on a company that basically holds the keys to most of the marketing secrets that drive our economy.

  2. I’m surprised that the industry has been so slow to change with the market. TV should work like YouTube or sites like that, where you see clearly how many times a video has been viewed, and people can like or dislike a video and comment. With more and more TVs being internet ready, I imagine in the near future TV will work like that.

  3. Neilson has a fundamental problem with the way they collect information that runs deeper than the technology used to collect data. “Who” actually gets to participate in the studies has never been a proper cross-sectional scientific method–in short–over 50% of the television viewers are African American, another chunk–Latino, and yet the Nielsen ‘boxes’ are disproportionately offered to middle income, rural and ‘bible-belt’ ‘white’ families. So large urban areas are not proportionately represented in relation to ‘who’ is actually watching the majority of TV. So Neilsen gives an incorrect rating each time—unless you reduce the equation to–from the people we gave Nielsen boxes to, 3.8% watched Finding Hope….etc. More boxes, in more urban areas!

  4. It’s ridiculous how the Nielson Rating system has not been updated to be a more accurate way of finding out what shows are being watched. “The Nielsen ratings are based on a representative sample with randomly selected houses, referred to as basic units” (Milavsky 102 -106). Only around thirty-five percent of statistics gathered are used. I don’t understand how that is enough to base if a show should stay on the air or get cancelled. Like the “Save Chuck” example. The show was not getting enough ratings and the network wanted to cancel it. The dedicated fans however wanted to save the show and united with subway to try and do it. How many other shows have a dedicated fan base and have been cancelled due to the inadequate way of getting the ratings.
    The way that Nielsen gets ratings is not really user friendly and just plain boring. I would hate to be watching a few shows at once and have to write every time I am changing the channel. I would be one of the many people that quit after a few hours of watching TV and recording my data. In this day in age, the audience likes interacting with their favorite shows via web. We like to comment on what we like and dislike.
    If the Nielson Rating system does not change soon, then we should try the Qualitative system. There may be those broadcasters who have been resistant to the idea because it’s too “complex” and the data would be too difficult to collect. But doesn’t it seem worth trying? Especially if our current rating system only uses 35% of the statistics. Not only would networks know the rating for a show but they would receive important feedback. If it is working for Europe, then maybe it will work here too.

  5. I agree that it’s difficult to count the amount of viewers, specifically those that watch a program exclusively on the web or when they miss an episode. But that’s something there’s no way around. People watch certain shows on Hulu when they miss them on Natural TV. But even if Hulu were to introduce a counter which kept track of all the views of each individual clip or episode (which they might already do, I’m not to internet savvy), there’s no way to keep track of programs watched illegally online.
    There are so many different ways to view television shows; people may record shows for friends or family members who miss it. This alone could take away half of the possible views for a show. Someone may watch individual clips of each episode on Youtube, or read a synopsis on the episode on the web if it’s deemed unimportant enough.
    Whereas the Nielson system worked before, there’s no way for it to keep up with today’s internet.
    I like Alejandra’s idea of a Qualitative system. Perhaps there can be a site (for each network) set up where people have to go to comment on shows they enjoy. Only shows with enough positive comments (the number would be based on the Series description, ie. how many like it are there, what is the series length, prime-time or no, etc.) would be allowed to continue airing.

  6. As it stands right now, the Nielsen ratings system only counts what is playing on a person’s TV at that particular moment. The current ratings system is incapable of measuring what a person is actually watching. Really, there is no guarantee the numbers are true. In fact, they are likely quite skewed because they cannot gauge reaction to the content, nor can they ensure that everyone in a Nielsen household is complying 100 percent of the time.
    I wonder – do advertisers feel it unfair to be priced by the measurement of an antiquated ratings system that seems to be becoming more and more arbitrary? I agree with the author, to fix the Nielsen ratings system they must track more than just the number of people who have their televisions on a station. It is important to include viewer feedback and periodical, open-ended questionnaires about the viewer’s opinions of the advertising, their favorite shows, and web activity. For example, what percentage of their ‘television’ consumption comes from the web?

  7. Although the Neilson Rating System is flawed, we also aren’t taking into serious account one of its primary uses. Yes, it is used by television networks to see if the show is popular or not, but that is almost secondary to why they need this information. It is also an invaluable tool for advertisers. This is basically what determines the rates the network can charge for a time slot during a particular show. Higher ratings = more money.
    One of my thoughts on the system would be to include it as part of your cable/satellite package, granting them the rights to monitor the television usage of the boxes they have installed in your home. If an advertisement can offer for me to “Click OK for more info,” than it wouldn’t be too hard for them to have a little popup at the bottom of the show which would prompt you to answer some questions about it during the last 5-10 minutes. And if you’re going to take a few bucks off my cable bill to do so, I’m even more likely to participate.

  8. The Neilson Rating System has been flawed since its inception in 1940. Now that most of us watch television on our computers, or record our favorite show, it’s time to come up with a new rating system, which takes time. Nielsen should be given credit for trying to incorporate and register all these new viewers who watch shows on their DVRs, it’s capturing only a small fraction of those who aren’t watching TV in traditional ways. There’s been a huge upswing in viewership on the Internet, which is no surprise, considering teens and 20-somethings are increasingly attached to computers and portable media devices. Each network replays its programming — full episodes, no less — on their own Web sites 24/7. So it’s only a matter of time before millions will be watching shows online — if we’re not already there. (msnbc.com)

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