Opinion: TV Ratings are Broken

I’m an avid television watcher. At any given time, I’m actively following 10 or more shows. I just love TV. All kinds of TV. I’m not alone either. TV is big business and brings in billions of dollars to networks every year. This is why I can’t believe those networks are completely ignoring the people who actually follow their shows. You’re canceling the wrong shows!

You’ve probably heard the term Nielsen Ratings thrown around. Nielsen is a company that’s been around pretty much since the dawn of TV giving the networks a magic number that’s supposed to represent viewership. Their system to do this? Basically, it has not changed for decades. Nielsen essentially puts a magic recorder on a several thousand TVs in households around the country. Despite being an extremely small percentage of the population, Nielsen claims they have a sample size that is representative of the nation.

So these recorders keep track of what the families are watching (TV shows, commercials and recently even same day DVRed shows). Every night Nielsen collects the data, packages it up in fancy charts and sends it off to the networks. For a more detailed look at how this all works check out this article I found quite helpful.

This all sounds straight forward, and I’m sure 30 years ago it was a very good way of knowing what people were watching. My problem is, not everyone watches TV like this anymore. Their data is skewed and in my opinion irrelevant in today’s TV watching landscape.

Think about this for a minute… do you watch your favorite show when it’s on TV? Sure I love to watch Community, but I’m usually not home on Thursday nights, so I always catch up on Fridays via Hulu. I’m not alone. A great number of people are changing the way they consume TV shows. Hulu, Netflix, iTunes and even on-demand cable are options many people (especially the younger generations) are using daily. Only measuring shows based on “live” viewers is ridiculous and archaic.

As the earlier mentioned article points out, neither Nielsen nor the networks really care. They want to sell ads, and everyone involved is used to the current system and just take it at its word. They have no intention or desire to change. As a TV fan, I’m outraged.

This is exactly why great shows like Firefly and Friday Night Lights get canceled while complete crap shows like Two and Half Men or Mike and Molly stay on the air. It’s just not fair to television viewers, show creators and even network executives for such lousy data to be making such big decisions about what’s on TV.

This is my plea for a new way of measuring viewership. It’s time internet streaming, iTunes downloads and cable on-demand viewers get their proper say in what stays on the air. Who cares if I’m watching ads on Hulu versus live TV. You can still make money off of my TV show addiction; you just need to think bigger. Let the music industry’s inability to change and embrace technology be a cautious tale of what staying with the status quo will bring.

All I know for sure is Nielsen clearly doesn’t represent me, and I know I’m not the only one. Here’s to major change in the TV ratings game!

***UPDATE—Feb. 21, 2013***

Hot on the heels of my post, Nielsen has agreed to expand its definition of TV viewing. One can only assume they read my post and were convinced it was the right thing to do. 😉