Things I Don’t Like About Television, Episode 35: Ratings Madness

When you watch television long enough and follow entertainment news, you will eventually come across a discussion of ratings. How are they collected? What do they mean?

In America, we have the Nielsen Ratings System. The scope of it is limited, but it’s results could be totally ignored by networks.

There are politics of behind the scenes of networks. First, they may look at the ratings and decide to cut well-written shows from the lineup due to supposedly low viewership or keep in lesser shows because viewers seem to like the hot lead actress.

The Nielsen Ratings System Is Seriously Flawed

What Is Wrong with Nielsen Ratings? I’ll be honest here.

I like the idea of collecting viewing data in theory. It is interesting to see who is watching what and to analyze the reasons why.

I appreciate the upfront nature and meticulousness of The Nielsen Company. Since 1950, the group has collected data on television viewers. Participating families have devices connected to their television sets during the process. The Nielsen Company has expanded its data collection to viewers on mobile devices and with DVR’s. The group also looks at consumer data and monitors which commercials are actually holding viewer interest.

However, I think that the means of the Nielsen Company’s data collection is far too limited. Furthermore, the results may have more negative effects on programming in the long run.

Only a small percentage of American families per year are even asked to participate in the ratings program, and over two million viewing journals are collected during any “sweeps” period. When you see a show that had an average of 30 million viewers (with a share representing the number of television sets in use tuned in to the program), the number was manufactured by multiplying averages of the smaller sample of viewers who were voluntarily monitored. Far fewer people can actually be watching the shows in question, so the system can be gamed by viewers who are so inclined.

Demographics Are Worshipped

This is something that has irked me since I first heard about it.

When you think about the history of television, programming was originally aimed at adults. Soap operas were developed from radios shows aimed at housewives, “I Love Lucy” was one of the first sitcoms, and some of the earliest cartoons were full of adult humor.

Now, ratings began to be more closely examined and programming in turn is affected. The study of demographics and consumer behavior might be partly to blame. This is of course also connected to advertisers.

Demographics consist of age groups that include children and teenagers. They are also broken down by gender, income, and social status. By the 1990s, the all-important 18-49 demographic was well-known by viewers.

It is this demographic which is given the most attention by advertisers — and thus by network executives. The target demographic affects how much shows networks can demand for commercial spots and that will influence how much each show is marketed by its network. The thing about this is that the shows in question could pull in fewer viewers than those who attract an older demographic overall, but still command more advertising dough. This is why some of the angsty, tantalizing, and teenage-oriented shows are given so much attention by the media. Networks will also market toys or other merchandise depending on the targeted age group, which partially explains the success of SpongeBob Squarepants.

The term “sweeps” was also well-known by the 1990’s. “Sweeps,” periods, or “specific periods during the months of February, May, July and November,” are given the most attention for advertisers.

Writers/Executives Can Be Largely Unconcerned with Audiences in General

There are times when those at the helms of their respective networks do not care what their viewers want or care for them on a personal level. When executives push unpopular shows or kill decent-to-great ones, it is like giving viewers the middle finger. Some executives are even so far up their own asses that they see fit to outwardly insult viewers.

A prime example of all three insults is Syfy(lis). Originally launched as The Sci Fi Channel, it primarily featured shows and films pertaining to the genre. At its best, the network featured anime on Mondays and runoffs of newer shows from different networks. However, the channel had long moved away from that formula, and programming suffered. ECW wrestling was aired, sometimes with contrived science fiction storylines. Old reruns of The Twilight Show and X Files would become stale. Its original programming was questionable, as films like “Snakehead Terror” (2004) and “Mansquito” (2005) were aired and a season of the popular Battlestar Gallactica would be delayed by seven months. Ultimately, the channel would be rebranded as “Syfy” effectively on July 7, 2009.The name change alone was an insult because of two reasons.

As Tim Brooks would tell TVWeek in 2009:

The name Sci Fi has been associated with geeks and dysfunctional, antisocial boys in their basements with video games and stuff like that, as opposed to the general public and the female audience in particular. It’s somewhat cooler and better than the name ‘Science Fiction.’ But even the name Sci Fi is limiting.

The quip about “geeks and dysfunctional, antisocial boys in their basements” was a total slap in the face. Even worse was how then-president of the network David Howe thought the “Syfy” brand would be more “more cutting edge” or “much more hip.” If you hate hipsters, I can understand if that made you gag a little.

From David Howe’s NBCUniversal profile page:

Howe has also overseen an aggressive expansion of the brand with Syfy Ventures, Syfy’s portfolio of businesses which transcends the television screen and focuses upon next-generation brand extensions, including both media and non-media properties. Syfy Ventures’ rapidly expanding portfolio includes four major business lines: Gaming, Kids, Online & Mobile, and Consumer Products. Syfy Games is the umbrella brand for Syfy’s gaming projects, including the partnerships with Trion Worlds for the transmedia event “Defiance.”

A couple of takeaways:

First, the issue of marketing only served to alienate viewers. By 2008, Sci Fi Channel would enjoy its highest ratings, especially among women, and executives wanted to market to them at the expense of male viewers.

Second, the programming of the network would be allowed to slide without closely adhering to a common theme; however, the execs would step back a little once ratings sharply fell. “Science fiction” programming is still featured, the Syfy of today features more ridiculous programming. Some examples are “Sharknado,” which was unfortunately a hit and spawned sequels, and the poorly acted Scare Tactics.

Select Shows Are Screwed by the Network

Demographics can have a decidedly negative effect when a show a network wants to market to a younger demographic misses, yet still pulls in a sizeable following. Once again, I will mention Avatar: The Last Airbender because it falls into this category. Nickelodeon wanted to market the show to children, but most viewers were in their late teens and early twenties. At some point, the show was replaced with teen shows or SpongeBob in promised time slots and the premier of Book Three was delayed by months.

Sometimes network executives ignore ratings, when they want to kill certain programs — and keep worse ones on the air. (There was once a nice description of this type of situation on TVTropes — before the small takeover and raid of the site by members of Something Awful pushed Fast Eddie to tweak his former site and ruin the overall atmosphere of it. In short, it was theorized that any egomaniacal TV exec would push his favorite shows to stay on long past their expiration dates, despite low ratings. At the same time the executive may try to kill other shows, which may or may not have been created under his predecessor.) Regardless of the backstory, there are times when perfectly watchable shows are moved around a lineup with little or no notice, put in death slots, and given little exposure (via reruns).

Past shows that have gone through this type of BS were NBC’s 3rd Rock from the Sun and MTV’s Daria. The former actually survived for six seasons and was allowed to conclude properly (?) and I think the latter was largely ignored due to shows like The Real World before finally concluding after 4 years. In fact, I think all animated programs on MTV got shafted, including Beavis and Butthead, despite that getting its own movie. I get the feeling that cartoons are pushed to the side — despite their popularity — in favor of the reality programs offered by the network.

Now, I will go back to the Avatar franchise to mention what ultimately happened to The Legend of Korra. Book One enjoyed pretty decent ratings. The premier was announced with ample time and the episodes were originally aired on Saturday mornings at 9:00 am. This changed with Book Two. It was delayed, the announcement of it was on short notice, and the time slot was now on Fridays at 8pm. That time on Friday nights is known as a death slot. The airing of Book Three was met with disaster, as leaks forced Nickelodeon to air the episodes earlier — although they were being held out too long, anyway — and ratings supposedly dropped from the last book. Ultimately, Nickelodeon stopped airing the episodes on its channel after Chapter Nine of Book Four and moved them all to its website.

Would you like to read about some more company shenanigans? The next post in the series is about cable providers and satellite companies.


Have any thoughts on the subject? Time’s yours.

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