TV Ratings: Are We Looking At Them All Wrong?

Are We Measuring TV Ratings All Wrong?

When it aired on television from 2003 to 2006, "Arrested Development" was a ratings disaster. The beloved Fox comedy's second season averaged out at around 6 million viewers per episode, and it quickly declined from there. Fox, in turn, lowered the episode counts and pit the struggling show against ABC's behemoth, "Monday Night Football," all but killing its chances of success. The series finale barely nabbed 3 million viewers.

But the show maintained a rabid, consistent fanbase who ate up every episode and gobbled up the DVDs, turning the show's stars -- Jason Bateman, Will Arnett and Michael Cera -- into mainstream success stories. These days, creator Mitch Hurwitz and his cast are bombarded in countless interviews with questions about a feature film version of the show, which is reportedly in the works. Five years after it was cancelled, "Arrested Development" remains relevant, and the brand still holds weight.

Perhaps if Fox had figured out how to properly account for its fanbase -- most of which was made up of younger viewers more apt to download or watch the show online or on DVD -- the show would have been met with a different fate. By thinking outside the box, might a show with fans as engaged and enamored with the content as "Arrested Development" have more of a fighting chance?

Steve Levitan, the executive producer of "Modern Family," would certainly argue that point. While attending a panel in Montreal, Levitan told the Hollywood Reporter that the way we measure television audiences has not properly adapted to the times of DVR, online viewership and mobile consumption. It has not begun to truly reflect to how we really interact and engage with our favorite programs.

If you have a show that caters to a technologically sophisticated audience, or a young audience who watches TV in that newer way, it may hurt you," he said, "compared to a show that caters to an older audience, or an audience that is at a lower class socially-economically, where they tend to watch TV live, as it happens."

In other words: the way studios track TV shows has not kept pace with the way people are watching them. Just because our TVs are turned on doesn't mean we are engaged with them -- or are invested in the content. Yet today, a viewer who stumbles across an episode of "CSI:NY" while he's cooking dinner is given more weight than a viewer who plows through two straight seasons of "Breaking Bad" on DVD.

As the climate of television changes with every passing year, the number of ways a viewer can engage with a show increases, and the networks and their advertisers are struggling to catch up. With new research and a fresh outlook, everyone agrees that we need to change the way we look at television ratings. But can all parties band together for this common cause?


The Nielsen Company has maintained a consistent monopoly on ratings measurement since 1950. And in the past 10 years, they've certainly upped their game. Today, Nielsen tracks the consumption stats for DVR, online streaming, mobile devices. Further, it extensively monitors online discussions and social trends, among other new developments in the changing television landscape.

But with each development comes new questions about how best to monetize and measure the effect a show has on the viewer -- questions that keep Matt O'Grady, the EVP of Media Audience Measurement for Nielsen, "up all night."

"The online world has not been easy for advertisers, because there's really no way to figure out if it's working," O'Grady told The Huffington Post in Nielsen offices in Manhattan. "We can prove a certain audience in a certain demographic saw a program on TV. It's easy. But online it's much harder. The steps between publisher and advertiser are many; there's the agency, ad server, data exchange, auction sites, all these steps. You're buying clicks, but you don't really know whether you've got the audience you've paid for."

Just as "Modern Family's" Levitan wants to figure out how to best monetize his show, Nielsen wants to provide for the advertisers the information they need, while also best representing the viewer's changing habits.

At the same time, Nielsen's most popular and frequently publicized rating each week is still its classic TV sampling rating, which uses its smattering of "Nielsen families" to determine who's watching what and how old they are. This process has been around since Nielsen's inception, and it's still the predominant ratings currency in the business.

When a family agrees to be a Nielsen family, they make a two-year commitment to the program. The home is then provided with a custom cablebox, and each family member is given a unique profile. Any time a member of the family watches a TV show, they first have to click on their profile, so Nielsen can track what they're watching.

But today's viewer doesn't even necessarily own a television. Many people all over the country, many of whom would consider themselves avid TV fans, watch most of their content online. A lot of young people don't even have a cable box to track, nor would they be willing to dedicate two years of their lives to being part of a "Nielsen family." (They'd probably be too distracted to write back to Nielsen in the first place, truth be told.)

So how do we track what these viewers -- these "technologically savvy" viewers, as Levitan refers to them -- are watching and engaging with?

"Advertisers realize things are all changing," Nielsen's O'Grady said. "But how do they leverage it all, bring accountability to it?"

Philip Napoli, a leading media scholar and director of the Donald McGannon Communication Research Center at Fordham University, said that Nielsen is making their metrics more sophisticated every year.

"They're looking at how much online discussing is taking place about a show, how much Facebook posting, [which] videos are being shared and linked to. We're in this early, larval stage of what might be a new currency developing."

The word that everyone threw around most often was "engagement." It's one thing to tune into a show because it just happens to be on TV, but it's another to invest in it, to consume it both online and on live television. Perhaps advertisers are overlooking the fact that this "engagement factor" is the most essential component of online viewership and social media sharing.


According to Nielsen's own Cross Platform report, viewers 18-34 years old watched an average of 131.7 hours of television every month. But that same demographic only watched 7.11 hours of TV online.

Presented with this information, an advertiser might immediately wonder why they're focusing any of their efforts online. Clearly, people still watch an exorbitant amount of live television. Online views are only a fraction of the pie.

But think about the way you watch TV on your couch, and then think about the way you watch and talk about TV online. When watching a show on Hulu or Netflix, that's all you're doing. You've set out to watch that show, and you're engaged. That's why you're there, after all.

Certainly, America still watches and engages with live television -- viewers still need to know who won American Idol the minute it happens, or who won the Super Bowl, or who was eliminated on "The Bachelor" that night -- but we also leave our TVs on in the background, and constantly flip channels.

"You're not going to be multi-tasking as much if it's your laptop," O'Grady said. "With TV, you're leaning back. Online, you're leaning in. That's how we often describe it here."


Sheila Seles of the Advertising Research Foundation suggested that rather than trying to make online ratings look more like TV's, we should be doing things the other way around -- using the powers of the internet to alter the way we measure our viewership.

"Think of [all] the cool ways we can measure digital habits -- engagement, segmentation, behavioral tracking -- why aren't we applying that knowledge to television?" she asked. "It's all digital! There's a computer in your cable box, so why aren't we using it right? It just seems so backwards to me."

Advertisers, she said, need to think outside the box they've built for themselves, and that includes taking a long hard look at the "C3" metric. Today, the television advertising system basically trades solely in "C3," which measures how much of a commercial break viewers are watching. But if you're watching a recorded program on your DVR and you fast forward through the commercials, the C3 rating isn't counted. Additionally, if you watch the recorded program more than three days after it originally aired, it also loses much of its impact. Nielsen still tracks those stats, but they don't hold as much weight.

Further, if an online view is to be measured alongside a television view, it has to have the exact same commercial break in length and brand and order on both mediums for it to factor in the C3 metric. And as of now, only the Turner Broadcasting Network channels (including TBS and TNT) seems interested in using the same ads online as on live television.

O'Grady would agree that this system has its flaws. Nielsen needs "to move quicker" to adapt its current structural limitations, he said, and they're doing everything they can. In the next few years, Nielsen plans to track both age demographics and general clicks and impressions all at once. They'll continue to sample TV and online viewers through their panels, but they're also going to be counting how many times a show is actually watched by the general public through viewers' set-top-boxes.

Pat McDonough, Nielsen's senior vice president of Insights and Analysis, said that Nielsen is also tracking online discussions, Twitter feeds, Facebook shares and all the other ways that TV fans are interacting with their favorite shows online. The real issue is not the amount of information that networks and advertisers will be privy to, it's how best to streamline it.

"I actually think smaller shows with a solid [fanbase] have more of an opportunity to continue today," McDonough said. "The old model wasn't supporting a show like 'Friday Night Lights,' so it went over to DirecTV, and [NBC] showed the reruns in the summer. NBC Universal can now take a show doing marginally perhaps on the network, and have it be very successful." Certainly, McDonough argues, there's work to be done. But Nielsen also has more information than ever before. It's what the networks and studios and advertisers do with all that information that matters now, she suggested, how they use it to help their most beloved shows. As Fordham's Philip Napoli, sees it, the advertisers still "drive the bus." And right now, they're dealing with an "entirely new currency" that hasn't been defined just yet.

As Craig Engler, GM and senior vice president of Syfy Digital, wrote in a column in Blastr, an entertainment news site: "Nielsen ratings don't exist in a vacuum." The networks are looking at everything -- DVR viewership, iTunes downloads, DVD sales, pirated and illegally obtained content -- all that stuff gives them "different metrics" to look at alongside the standard TV ratings.

In other words: networks see how much you talk and share some of their shows online, and they want their smaller, niche shows to succeed. They just don't quite know how to monetize you quite yet -- how to turn your enthusiasm into actual ad dollars.


In a few unique cases, TV fan enthusiasm has already translated into real action, and tangible returns. Just take a look at "Chuck," the NBC comedy that has been struggling in the standard Nielsen TV ratings since 2008, but has remained on the air largely thanks to emphatic fans and critics who have lobbied in creative ways to keep it afloat.

After Subway made a product placement deal for the second season of "Chuck," one fan of the show, Wendy Harrington, organized a campaign encouraging fans to purchase Subway sandwiches on the date of the shows' second season finale. Zachary Levi, the star of "Chuck," followed through on the campaign himself, leading hundreds of fans to a Subway restaurant in England. Josh Schwartz, the show's creator, told "TV Guide" that the outpouring of fan support during the Subway campaign was one of the most amazing experiences of his life -- and actually had an effect on NBC's perception of the show.

Thousands of fan and critic petitions, websites and "Save Our Show!" pleas later, NBC decided to renew "Chuck" for a fifth and final season, despite its rather dismal TV ratings.

Certainly, as James Poniewozik of Time wrote: "The sad fact of advertising-supported television is that, unlike cable, it still rewards breadth, not depth, of viewership."

Hopefully, in the years to come, that depth can find its monetary value, and all of these players at the table can siphon through these overwhelming piles of figures and statistics and figure out what it really means to be "engaged" with television today; how to reach those rabid "Arrested Development" fans, and those who just want to watch "Two And A Half Men" while they fold laundry; when to ask "Chuck" fans to buy Subway sandwiches, and when to give up.

"I would argue that in an ideal world, networks and advertisers would know how valuable 'Chuck' fans were without them having to buy sandwiches," the Advertising Research Foundation's Seles said. "To me, the fact that they had to buy sandwiches signaled a breakdown in how the system is supposed to work."

Still, for now, that might be a better option than waiting for the feature film.

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