Saturday, August 25

Paint By Numbers: Network Ratings

It’s odd to read Susan Whiting, president and CEO of Nielsen Media Research, write about “Anytime Anywhere Media Measurement,” and not just because it closely mirrors the “Anytime, anywhere, from any device” positioning statement that we developed for the National Emergency Number Association’s Next Generation 911 System several years ago.

No, it’s mostly odd because the new Nielsen “everyone counts” concept doesn’t resonate with people who will watch Jericho Season 2, who once watched The Black Donnellys, or who once watched a half dozen other programs that have since been slashed for poor ratings.

“We’re not on the same channel. Isn’t that great! Well, maybe, if you’re particularly fond of revolutions. Remember when were all over the “dial?” Well, there is no dial. Digital took care of that. So we’re surfing with the remote. Not always. Sometimes we timeshift by watching what we want when we want.” — Susan Whiting

Sound familiar? The language reads like the scores of testimonials from Jericho fans ever since we noted Nielsen was feeling some fallout months ago (except the fans wrote better). Back then, it was these fans who learned for the first time that their show was going to be cancelled because the Nielsen system fails the most important criteria of a sample: it is not random in the statistical sense.

Simply put, the ratings game is a crapshoot. The sliver of a difference between keeping a show on the air today or not is so statically insignificant, sliced all the more thinly by targeting select demographics, and completely negating any audience that might watch shows in a group setting (bars, college dorms, etc.). And yet, the rating system is why we watch the Super Bowl in February (during sweeps, when the most viewers are surveyed), dictates advertising rates, and is the fuel for most entertainment columns.

Not to worry, Nielsen says, it’ll have a whole new system by 2011. How well that will work is anybody’s guess. Sure, Nielsen has some good ideas, including its social network buzz network monitoring device “Hey! Nielsen,” which is currently being beta tested by employees.

But at some point, somebody still has to ask what do these numbers mean anyway? Some might live by them, but others are becoming less certain. For a long time, HBO completely ignored the numbers and produced award-winning heavily watched shows, and its message “It’s not TV, it’s HBO” really stuck.

Nowadays, it doesn't seem that way, which is why HBO might find its roots again. Increasingly, HBO is measuring its success both by how many viewers a show accumulates over multiple plays and by how well a show performs with its on-demand service, where viewers order specific episodes. We hope others follow suit with new measure methods, because while we maintain Nielsen does have some relevance, shifting the decision-making process might save us from more paint-by-number programming and nuttier Nielsen concepts.

For example, Nielsen recently released that local people readers (non-sweeps tracking) were employed in the top 10 television markets, which supposedly accounts for 30 percent of all television households. (What’s missed is the tiny number of households tracked in those markets). In other words, Atlanta,
Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. have a little more weight than the rest of the country.

This is especially significant to Jericho fans because looking back over our own analytics during the peak of the cancellation protest, Jericho fans seem grossly underrepresented in these markets when compared to the greater United States (to say nothing of Canada and other countries). When you think about the show, it almost makes sense. It doesn’t seem like an urban powerhouse as much as it captures the rest of the nation’s imagination.

But what does that mean? It means what it has always meant. Attempting to paint by numbers to give shows a leg up in the ratings (or even critical review) is fraught with peril. In the months and years ahead, especially as broadcast-Internet convergence moves forward, networks will be better served by creating and marketing the content that they believe in, which is how some cable players like HBO and even some network shows have succeeded.

If you create a great show and support it, the numbers will follow — with viewers, DVD sales, and Internet engagement. Anything else is just guesswork. Just to illustrate the point, someone looking at Southwest Airlines on Alexa might notice it is down 11 percent in reach over the last three months. Do those numbers mean anything? Not if I count $150 million in ticket sales attributed to the widget that is part of its social media marketing program. Go figure.



Sweet Tea on 8/25/07, 10:26 AM said...

Excellent article. Thanks.
Now throw this in the mix:AdAge reported yesterday that "Nielsen's numbers show the large generation of baby boomers migrating into older demographic groups. One of the fastest-growing categories was persons between the ages of 55 and 64, a group that grew 3.9%. The number of young adults, however, grew by just 0.3% from last season."
CBS and others still want that 18-49 group. Could it be this is why Couric is having problems? Moonves said he wanted to appeal to younger viewers.
After Jericho was cancelled Nina Tassler said it had "lost its engine." The engine was still there but everybody at CBS was looking in the caboose.

Rich on 8/25/07, 11:38 AM said...

Thanks Jane.

Yes, in fact, the link on "relevance" will take you to the release where AdAge pulled their story from.

Those numbers are relevant for two reasons. It shows what we know — baby boomers are aging — and what we forget — younger audiences are approximately the same size as boomers.

From what I've seen — age isn't the factor in understanding who makes up Jericho fans; location seems to be the dividing line. And I don't think that was something CBS ever considered.

So, to use your analogy in terms of Jericho, I think CBS is looking at the train when they might consider looking at the train station. Outside of Jericho, CBS dominates older audiences but wants to shift away from being branding television for older people. But rapid brand shifts like that almost never work.

Miller is still recovering from doing the same several years ago. In attempting to hit hipper customers, it alienated it's blue collar core.

Good discussion. :)


Anonymous said...

I know what is between Rich's ears. Email me for the answer

Rich on 8/25/07, 1:05 PM said...

Hey Jeremy,

If you disagree with the post, I'm curious to know what Cisco Systems can lend to the conversation.

All my best,

Sweet Tea on 8/25/07, 2:08 PM said...

I forgot to ask you something. Do you think Nielsen will feel an impact from ComScore tracking viewers?

Rich on 8/25/07, 2:31 PM said...

Hey Jane,

I do not know a whole lot about comScore (despite it being the another measurement leader). It's something I'll have to look into more.

I did read an article in The Wall Street Journal that suggests to me comScore might be in a better position to move faster in the marketplace long-term. However, I am not sure whether or not everyone—from the networks to the publications—is ready to embrace a new media research leader.

With convergence, it seems possible. And if Nielsen keeps talking about the challenge of "speed to market" then it will be even easier.

I know this doesn't answer your question direct, but might give us framework to move forward.


Anonymous said...

Great article Rich! I couldn't agree more that that the method by which the success of a television show is measured must change. The Black Donnellys was definitely one of the casualties of the outdated Nielsen rating system (in addition to a number of poor network decisions!) and I can think of several other great shows that were cancelled long before they had any real chance to build an audience. Hopefully, the networks will eventually realize that cheap programming and continuous cancellations are not the keys to attracting a large and loyal audience.

Anonymous said...

judist63 from Jericho message boards here: I always appreciate the articles you write about Jericho and how much research you do in order to be as accurate as possible. I still feel tho that we are "counting" on the fact that the numbers from the Nielsen households are accurate and we all know with human error how these can be incorrect. I don't believe or have faith in the accuracy of these numbers because of this and they can be skewed to reflect whatever the big corporations want them to reflect. We can't all live in these big cities nor would I want to, just so the appearences of the numbers game look better for Jericho fans. I live in the midwest in a town of about 36,000 so does this mean I count less because of where I live? If that's the case then I guess the products and services I buy count less too. If the big corps don't start looking at how many of us don't live in the big cities that seem to matter more, we as a whole make up more than the populations of those big cities I would think.

Rich on 8/26/07, 8:22 AM said...

Thanks for your comments Mija and Judast,

Those are very valid points. All too often, it seems, programming is dictated by the illusion of an audience and not the reality of an audience.

There are some towns that might not have any or perhaps just one Neilsen family. So, imagine how hit and miss it becomes when a single family dictates what the rest of the show might watch ... or, how heavily urban centers factor into the equation.

It's even more erroneous during non-sweeps because Neilsen has focused much of its efforts on box installs (as opposed to the paper ballots) in major metro areas first, thereby cutting out the rest of the country. At least, that is my understanding.

To me, the better solution for companies is to understand better their customer and make media purchasing decisions based on direct knowledge as opposed to rating systems alone. It's not all about number crunching; it's about understanding the consumer, imo. A few get it; most do not.

So far though, companies with deep media buys seem more willing to boycott a show than to sponsor one based on what their consumers want.

All my best,

Jayhawkgirl on 8/26/07, 10:49 AM said...

Great article Rich. You made some great points, and gave me something to think about. I wonder if e-mailing audience services and using the feedback form at CBS, counts for anything. I am not a Nielsen family and do not have DVR or TiVo. I e-mail CBS everytime I watch Jericho live on TV, and include a list of advertisers which I saw during the show. Will this make any difference in your opinion??

Is there anything more I can be doing to let the network know that I am watching, and want to be counted??


Rich on 8/26/07, 11:49 AM said...

Hey Mary,

I can only hope that CBS is looking to rethink its measurement like other networks, which means that e-mailing audience services and using the feedback form at CBS may count.

However, I wonder sometimes if Jericho fans in particular might be able to record their own activities. That way, in the event, CBS reconsiders based on Nielsen ratings, you have all the more cause to present your case publicly.

Have faith Mary that this is a transitional phase. It makes sense for everyone that advertisers, agencies, and networks all rethink audience measurement.

If Les Moonves is true to his word that he doesn't care how people pick up his shows, then all is well. But you know, um, I'd hedge my bets. :)

All my best,

Is there anything more I can be doing to let the network know that I am watching, and want to be counted??


PlatPat on 8/26/07, 12:22 PM said...


As always, thanks for your continued support.

The entire systems is flawed in too many ways to "count"!!

First, there's the problem with the location placement of the puny number of boxes;

Then, the puny number of boxes;

Then, the demographic factor of throwing out the boomer generation;

Then, the fact that it is "assumed" that if the TV is tuned into a show in a Neilsen household that ANYONE is actually watching the TV;

Then, it is "assumed" that if that household has 5 members, that those 5 members are all watching;

Then, it is "assumed" that if 3 of those 5 members are within the proper demographic, that all 3 of them are watching.

Then, those same factors are "assumed" for any DVR or TiVo timeshifting numbers;

Then, there's the problem that advertisers are convinced they want to use these numbers when paying for advertising.

How many ways can something be broken before it gets fixed?

Rich on 8/26/07, 12:53 PM said...


I think you nailed most of the flaws; great run down. It only gets worse from there.

These numbers are then used to justify critical reviews, build and kill careers, sell advertising, position networks, etc. Is it any wonder we watch programming and wonder why certain advertisements completely miss us as consumers?

Sadly, it is not so much as how broken does it have to get, but what can we replace it with. That seems to be what most people are trying to work on now, but unfortunately, they are also pretending these numbers mean something in the meantime.

Four to five years is a tremendous amount of time for Nielsen to make good on its "everybody counts" concept. Entire companies are founded, shine, and burn out or bought out in less time.

Best, Rich

Jayhawkgirl on 8/27/07, 7:14 PM said...


Thanks for the reply and words of encourgement : )


Blog Archive

by Richard R Becker Copyright and Trademark, Copywrite, Ink. © 2021; Theme designed by Bie Blogger Template