What Are The “Ratings”?

the dope on the soaps

What Are The “Ratings”?


The ratings measure… What? How? Why?

What are the “ratings”? How do they work? You probably have wondered how television networks make money. If you haven’t, it is perhaps because you already are familiar with what keeps all forms of entertainment from truly being awesome: advertising. Those frustrating commercials that interrupt General Hospital and any form of non-premium entertainment you view are the only way media companies have been able to produce content for decades.

Companies want to know their advertising dollars air in the right spots. You can’t expect your ads to work if nobody sees them or if the wrong person sees them. You could be selling pot brownies outside of a Phish concert, but if your ads are playing during the 700 Club, you can’t expect your target audience to be aware of your specials.

Advertisers need to know that an adequate number of people see those ads for the money they pay the networks to air their ads. The networks also need to prove that their ad time is worth what they charge, especially compared to their competitors. Advertisers can’t take the network’s word for it, so an industry-standard was the best way to go.

Nielsen has become synonymous with TV Ratings

Nielsen Media Research has been the only game in town for television ratings since the dawn of television. Nielsen samples households around the country, record their viewing habits, and the data is the basis for the rating system the networks use. Nielsen’s quickly became the industry standard of measurement. Networks and advertisers come to agreements on ad rates based on these ratings.

Nielsen uses a method of statistical sampling to gather information. Nielsen households are distributed evenly across the country, making attempts to ensure the audience is racially diverse enough to reflect the audience accurately. Although there are some questions as to how well Nielsen has done this over the years. Nielsen also switches out households over time so that there is a different sampling each year.

More accurate than a presidential poll

The Nielsen audience sample comprises 40,000 households throughout the country, their viewing recorded via a device connected to a modem that uploads information nightly to Nielsen with their viewing data. The sample size is out of an estimated total of 121 million (121,000,000) households with television access/television viewers in the United States today.

To be considered a statistically valid presidential poll, you need a sample size of 800 respondents. That’s 800 people out of 200,000,000 potential voters in the United States. That’s only 0.0004% of likely voters. More or less, these polls are at least close enough to give an idea of where people stand. Politicians stake a good amount of financial, personal, and political capital with decisions based on such polls—which says a lot about the accuracy of even the most minor statistical samples.

Nielsen’s sample size comes out to 0.033% of the population compared to 0.0004% for a presidential poll. And remember this: Nielsen has devices recording the data collected. The data isn’t information from a phone survey that might have incorrect or blatantly false data from the respondents.

Nielsen has done what few have attempted

The fact is that large swaths of the population have no real say in television networks’ decisions to cancel series. It comes down to just a few thousand viewers’ choices. In Nielsen’s defense, they have an extensive network of devices and systems in place and have worked to refine how they measure television viewing for almost 70 years.

Even though the sample size seems small, the system itself is more reliable than what the nation’s leaders use to decide their future and, in many ways, the end of the country. And all Nielsen does is help decide if General Hospital viewers would be more likely to buy tampons than beer (I think the answer is a solid maybe for most on that). The methods as well as the results, demonstrate at least the consistency and reliability of Nielsen’s system.

The Nielsen rating system is as consistent as measuring something people do privately in their homes as can be. Through each week and throughout a season, the results remain constant and stable. Don’t get me wrong: there are increases and decreases in the audience every week. But the fluctuations in the numbers are in line with what makes statistical sense. There are rare- like exceedingly rare if ever- anything like 17 million watching one week, 3 million watching the next, then 10 million watching the week after.

Erratic shifts in the numbers outside of content or external factors are rare. A celebrity guest on a sitcom, scandal-plagued guest on a talk show, series finale- those can lead to upticks in viewers. Timeslot changes or new storylines can lead to a downtick. Those are examples of the audience’s interest and personal life having an impact on the ratings. These are subjective and unpredictable. Nielsen picks up on these nuances with their system.

The sysyem reflects external and internal factors

External factors that impact the ratings are examples of the system’s accuracy. Massive blackouts in an area heavily populated end up hurting a show’s ratings. Snow days in February will often lead to an uptick in daytime viewing. Local sporting events will impact viewers differently in different regions. These circumstances are natural ways that affect audience levels. 99% of the time, they are reflected in Nielsen’s numbers.

Nielsen has another thing going for it: neutrality and independence of outside influence. Nielsen has no opinion on the data found; it charges everybody who uses the service and is independent of a larger company with media interests that might inappropriately influence the data for personal gain.

Ratings system surprisingly true to viewer’s behavior

There is no change in a show’s audience based on the critical opinions of shows. Plenty of critically acclaimed performances have terrible ratings, and plenty of dreadful programs end up incredibly popular. Some shows grow over time, and some start hot but cool off. Heavily promoted episodes don’t always end up doing as well. Sometimes a show will hold onto an audience even if it changes timeslots or an actor leaves a series. Many viewers may tune in for a special event only to tune out if the plot takes an unpopular turn.

For all its flaws, the numbers and data over the past decades that Nielsen has provided come from a sound system. The quality of content not always lining up with popularity indicates neutrality towards the data collected. Neutrality is inherent to Nielsen’s design, so nothing can change the indisputable facts learned about the television audience.

Viewing behavior is both organic and unpredictable- just like anything a human being does. Enough of it makes sense, and enough it boggles the mind. Kind of like people behaves in everyday life. You cannot force people to watch. You cannot stop them from watching. There is no guarantee that they will keep watching. Some want to watch but can’t or don’t. Some watch out of habit or convenience.

The system is not without flaws and limits

The rating system does have limitations—a lot of them. First off, the data generally available for people outside of the networks is Live Plus Same-Day viewing unless otherwise noted. Live Plus Same-Day is the term for any viewing done the day a particular program airs on television through 3:00 AM that night via DVR playback. If you watch the episode online through the channel’s website, via a streaming service like Hulu, VOD (video on demand) through your cable company, or watch the recorded episodes a day later. They don’t count towards the initial ratings.

You must be thinking: “Wait, what the 🤬🤬🤬”! I don’t blame you. There is a lot of viewing that is not counted initially in the data on which networks rely. Not to say that they don’t count at all. They do, just not as much. Or at least not as much as they should, but that is changing. All the data is eventually counted and heavily influences the network’s decision; we don’t have access to that information. Nielsen is working on ways to integrate the data so that all kinds of viewingis merges into one system.

So, for now, Nielsen is the most perfectly imperfect way we can discuss the popularity of and future security of our favorite soap operas.

Out-dated concepts of the audience

When it comes to daytime television, there are three categories that the networks primarily look at: total viewership, women aged 18-49, and women aged 25-54. The overall audience is important data, and demographic information can be valuable. I do take issue with the stereotyping of programming based on gender.

We would have a better entertainment experience if high-quality storytelling were the main factor influencing the production. Unlike preconceived and antiquated notions perpetuated with programming crafted with one primary goal: to exploit our sensibilities as consumers. But that’s just me.

Don’t even get me started on the social implications. Or the fact that advertisers view older people as low value is an industry-standard. I’m 36, and I still think that’s some bull💩💩💩💩. Wow, that felt good. Moving on.

Total Viewers

The standard for being a part of the total viewers demographic is a pretty low bar to clear. Nielsen counts all viewers ages two and up with access to television as potential viewers for a program. According to Nielsen, there are roughly 308 million potential viewers above the age of 2 years old. To count as a viewer, one only has to watch 6 minutes or more of a program during a 30-minute. Which likely helps networks a great deal as channel surfing would probably ruin the ratings for every show.

Women 18-49 and Women 25-54

The demographic ratings are a point system meant to represent the percentage of a specific demographic’s total audience watching the show at any given point. There are 66 million women 18-49 and 61 million women 25-54 estimated to be in those demographics and regular television users. A 1.0 in women 18-49 is roughly 660,000 viewers in the demographic, and the same rating is about 610,000 in women 25-54.

More to come… Part 2: How the ratings have effected soap operas in particular

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