Fun with ratings

26May07

The 2006-07 Nielsen Ratings chart is out. I always love perusing these lists more than the weekly Top 20s, as the deeper recesses of the schedule shows many of the ambiguities and randomness of the television industry and their decisions to renew or cancel a series. While the measurement of ratings itself is pretty questionable as an accurate measure of real viewer behaviors, they form a currency for the industry, providing the internal logic for selling audiences to advertisers that I’ve discussed before.

So what lies within this season’s chart? There are two key columns – total number of viewers (which provides the general ranking), and the ratings for the key 18-49 demographic which is all that the advertisers care about (well, most actually care more about 18-35 or 18-24, but 18-49 is the widely reported span that matters most). Here are some thoughts gleaned while perusing the chart:

  • The press went on about how Lost‘s ratings were bottoming out this year. It ended the year ranked 17th overall, 9th with 18-49s, and reaching 14.6 million viewers. Last year it was 14th, 8th with the demos, with 15.5 mil viewers. Coupled with an alleged increase in online viewing and timeshifting, there simply was no real slide here. Meanwhile Heroes was hailed as much hotter and more popular than Lost. Its numbers: ranked 21st, 7th with demos (in a statistical tie with Lost), and 14.3 mil viewers. Lesson: ignore the press when they use ratings to chart a show’s fate.
  •  ER, which amazingly is still chugging along, ranked 31st overall and 17th with the quality demos. Who is still watching the show after all these years? Are they getting new younger viewers, or are the 20-somethings who watched in the 1990s still hooked into their 30s & 40s?
  • The Office is considered a hit show by many people – it’s got a fair amount of buzz, a well-known star, and according to the screenwriting bloggers, it’s the favored show for aspiring writers to “spec” (write a sample script as a calling card). It’s the 68th most popular show on the air, behind shows you probably have barely heard of like 3 lbs, Smith, or The Class. Yet it’s ranked #28 among the young demos, still not great but the one of the largest leaps up in the list and beating the direct competition of Ugly Betty. What that means is that if you watch the show, you’re probably exactly who advertisers want to reach, the “quality audience.” (Pat yourself on the back…)
  • In the end, CSI did beat Grey’s Anatomy by a hair in the marquee head-to-head match-up, but Grey’s pulls in slightly younger demos. Together, they split 40 million viewers practically in half, leaving poor Scrubs and 30 Rock to scrounge for scraps. Arguably NBC’s Thursday night comedy line-up is as good as it’s ever been (high praise), yet it still comes in third at best. Thankfully NBC is willing to keep renewing the line-up, hoping the ratings will eventually follow.
  • It’s clear that The CW is playing a totally different game than the other networks. Its best show ranks lower than any CBS or NBC show, and the bottom 10 is all CW. As a Veronica Mars fan, I can’t quite understand why they see it as less worth renewal than One Tree Hill, Everybody Hates Chris, or The Game, all of which have virtually equivalent ratings. So it goes.
  • The gap between #4 and #7 is 1 million viewers. The gap between #37 and #44 is 1 million viewers. The gap between #50 and #68 is 1 million viewers. These numbers are based on the measured viewing of 10,000 households. There is a margin of error, which is never published in the press and cannot be found on Nielsen’s website. Believe these numbers as representing actual behaviors at your own risk.


6 Responses to “Fun with ratings”

  1. I still watch ER once in awhile, and I definitely prefer it to Grey’s Anatomy. I tuned in in the fall when Forrest Whitaker was on. I would watch him recite the phone book. And then again in the spring to see Stanley Tucci, who is great in the role he plays, an idealistic chief who at first blush is a little crusty like Dr. House but actually turns out not to be so brittle. I find watching ER now and then to be quite comforting, like visiting with an old friend. And it pleases me as well to see so many of my favorite actors from other shows, like Lindsay and Kim from Freaks and Geeks and Eli from Once and Again. The show is pretty much as it always has been in terms of narrative and style, only with new characters. I find they handle the medical stuff much better than Grey’s, they avoid goofy comedy, and the camerawork and music is really effective at achieving a melodramatic tone. As for who’s watching, I would guess that all of your suggestions are right. Some people never gave it up, and other people probably got hooked on cable reruns long after the original cast had left and now are in the habit.

  2. 2 elpanek

    Considering the fact that 30 Rock and Scrubs are opposite Grey’s and CSI, why doesn’t NBC move them to another night? Grey’s and Scrubs seem to cater to a similar, young (possibly med school) audience. I know that audiences have trouble following a show when it changes nights, but if you were going to shift shows to another night, this would seem to be an instance where that would make sense. I have to wonder how much of this stubbornness comes from the “Thursday-Must-See-TV” comedy tradition that started in the 80’s. Would NBC be willing to kill a potentially successful show just to uphold that (rather arbitrary) tradition?

  3. One of the funny aspects of Scrubs is that they regularly mock Grey’s Anatomy for its similarities to Scrubs’ voiceover-narrated young-doctors-in-love style. I agree that NBC is hoping for a revival to Thursday night comedies, plus Thursday has both the highest total number of viewers of any night, and pulls in the high-spending Hollywood trailer ads. So NBC might not match ABC & CBS for the night, but they still manage to hold their own – and clearly ER still performs.

  4. 4 Jonathan Gray

    Following on from Jason and Michael’s comments, the numbers I’d really love to see is repeat vs. unique vs. sometimes viewing. Like Michael, I’ll watch ER occasionally, just to check in. And it seems that several shows’ success may well be predicated more on mopping up some viewers some of the time than on holding onto a diehard audience (pure guess, but I’d imagine Grey’s has a more reliable audience than CSI, making their “tie” kind of interesting). Do we know if such stats even exist? It seems that advertisers would want such things (I’d rather advertise to people who love a show than to those who are already likely doing the ironing anyways)

  5. Yes, stats on repeat/unique viewers exist, but they are part of Nielsen’s proprietary data that they charge buckets for. The ratings they report to the press are merely the public face of the Nielsen data collection machine. However, based on one very brief moment when I had some access to a company who had a Nielsen subscription, crunching the data is really hard and limited, especially by sample size. I was trying to answer what I thought was an interesting & pertinent question – what shows share viewers most frequently? Let’s just say that the process of using the data which was available to answer this question was fraught with too many difficulties to be able to come up with anything of note.


  1. 1 Lost on another blog : Today Topics

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