Who’s Watching What? Nobody Knows!

Perhaps unbeknownst to your average TV viewer, one of the pillars of the traditional television industry is collapsing. Yes, we’re talking about Nielsen ratings. For decades, these sometimes cryptic numbers have played a key role in all manner of programming decisions, from whether a show gets canceled or renewed to how much they charge for ads. Nielsen established the gold standard in measuring audiences; however, their venerable ratings have not aged gracefully as the television industry has experienced major shakeups in recent years, thanks largely to new technology.

Instant Gratification

The American consumer has largely abandoned the idea of “appointment TV;” that one must be on the right channel at the right time to catch a specific program. DVR systems from TiVo caught on in the late 1990s, and before long, it became a standard feature on many cable company set top boxes, allowing consumers to watch their favorite shows and movies whenever they wanted. Even more recently, web video on-demand has become another option for consumers. There’s no longer a need to store a month’s worth of programming on a hard drive in a household device when content going back decades can easily be accessed online. Also significant is the fact that web-based content is primarily accessed via PCs, smartphones, tablets, and other devices which share one thing in common: Nielsen isn’t measuring them. While Nielsen has made some progress on incorporating time-shifted (DVR) viewing into its numbers, content streamed via the web has largely become a black hole for the company, data-wise.

The Blind Leading the Blind

The result has been predictable. Despite what many critics refer to as a “golden age” of television, ratings are down across the board because so much viewing simply isn’t able to be captured. So what are the decision-making TV executives doing about it? Quite frankly, nothing. For lack of a better alternative, they’re stuck continuing to rely on Nielsen ratings despite knowing that they’re growing increasingly inaccurate, and missing a large portion of the picture. That creates a perilous situation for content and fans. A show could turn out to be exceedingly popular when you factor in online viewing, but because of poor ratings in its linear timeslot, it could still end up canceled or otherwise shuffled around. Even must-see TV that is known to attract viewers often ends up hitting record low numbers according to Nielsen. Despite ratings losing their relevance, in today’s hypercompetitive programming landscape, there’s more pressure than ever for networks and studios to bring in the numbers.