Why Do We Even Believe Television Ratings Anymore?

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The recent rash of cancellations of new shows continues to grow - NBC's "Free Agents" and "The Playboy Club," CBS's "How to Be a Gentleman," CW's "H8R," and ABC's "Charlie's Angels" have all bit the dust. ABC's "Pan Am" and NBC's "Prime Suspect" are rumored to be the next to go. Some of these shows definitely seemed like a bad risk from the start. But did their ratings really reflect their quality or potential?

The television industry still relies on Nielsen ratings, a system started by market analyst Arthur Nielsen in the 1950s. Using a combination of statistical sampling from approximately 5,000 Nielsen families (out of the almost 100 million American families with TV sets), with the help of tools such as television set meters, personal viewing diaries, and on-site checks, the company creates and publishes ratings and statistics, with the most powerful 18-49 age demographic being the most coveted by advertisers.

How many Nielsen families have you ever known? Me - zero. And although I still fit into that key demographic, albeit on the higher end of the scale, how ageist, imbalanced, and stupid is it? Older folks probably spend a lot more time at home watching television than younger people. And they have money to spend on the advertised products (and are much less likely to flip channels during commercials or record their shows and skip the commercials entirely). We all know that what really drives network programming is advertising.

Why, in the 21st century, are the television and advertising industries still crunching data using 1950s-era methods? There are so many more ways to watch television these days - on demand, on the internet, even on your smart phone. More and more viewers are programming their own content. It's been decades since the "Big 3" networks really meant anything. Why are we viewers and the industry that creates new content still forced to suffer under this outdated system? As reported by Splitsider,

"Absent from these ratings, and most others, are types of viewing that serious TV fans - and especially comedy lovers - are well acquainted with: Netflix, Hulu, iTunes and even on-demand cable viewing don't count toward the ratings totals, either because they don't have ads at all, or because the ads shown differ from the ones shown during initial broadcast."

Most people don't actually mind commercials. We all understand how things work. There are still ads galore to be found whether you watch a show on broadcast, cable, or your iPad. What people care about are shows that strike their fancy, that they can connect to. But as we all program our own content, we also need time to get around to viewing the new shows on the block. Although the cancellation of "Charlie's Angels" is undoubtedly deserved, is a four-episode run really long enough for everyone to catch up and decide whether they want to watch it at all? Why are we expected to make the commitment after watching the first episode or DVR-ing it and watching it in 24 hours? Why did the network make such a quick decision to axe it before it could find any kind of audience?

Not every network appears to be cowed by the ageist Nielsens, "On Tuesday, for instance, "Harry's Law," [NBC's] most-watched scripted show, got an order for six additional scripts, despite its relatively old audience. Network execs were encouraged by a whiff of strength in the show among DVR users." Maybe there is some hope that networks might start using the Nielsens as a guideline, rather than be-all, end-all criteria for decision-making.

As cute as the instant hit "New Girl" has been, the second episode was better than the pilot. A lot of its success is due to its network Fox being savvy enough to make the show available and free online to viewers before it aired on broadcast television. This may be the sort of Nielsen workaround that future new television shows will have to play with to attract the notice of todays' viewers. Because, as so many shows this year have already learned, if you play by the old rulebook, you will likely be canceled by the old rules.

John Herrman, "Why Nielsen Ratings Are Inaccurate, and Why They'll Stay That Way," Splitsider

Jonathan Storm, "Peacock looking plucked as NBC cancels shows," GoErie

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