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The TV audience measurement system is old and inaccurate

Photo: Rémi Yuan

Why are we still using Nielsen ratings? The quantitative data method used to measure the size of TV audiences is more than 60 years old and its age is really starting to show.

Nielsen television ratings are measured purely on the “first-run” viewership numbers (Nielsen measures American families and Canadian families separately). TV executives then use these ratings as the basis for the sale of air time to advertisers, which basically means that a program’s inherent value is determined by its initial run on broadcast television.

This system might have been an accurate representation of a standard TV audience back in an age before the Internet. But today, the number of people watching television in a non-traditional fashion is growing, and that means the Nielsen system is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Exclusive web series, streaming sites, and digital video recorders (DVRs) all exist now. These formats are wildly successful and have resulted in some mighty impressive technical and artistic innovations in how we watch TV.

Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon have produced award-winning original series like Orange is the New Black, House of Cards, and Transparent. Furthermore, torrent and illegal streaming sites have cultivated rabid fan bases through introducing viewers to shows that were previously inaccessible, like programs that are not currently airing in your country of residence.

But for many TV executives, these new formats simply don’t exist, since they do not offer them any opportunity for traditional advertising. Instead of investigating or even embracing these new avenues for television distribution, many execs continue to rely on the Nielsen rating system, which gives them a totally skewed idea of what audiences are watching.

For example, according to this ancient system, the most popular scripted show of the last two years is NCIS, a generic police procedural that has a median viewer age of 61.

Because of this, time and time again, critically acclaimed shows with loyal fan bases get cancelled because they don’t adhere to the same tired, creatively-bankrupt television formulas that have proven to be “popular” in the past. So rather than getting another season of fan favourites like Enlisted or Happy Endings, we are treated to another round of American Idol, since it is usually a Nielsen ratings juggernaut.

Thankfully, some networks have realized this and have started to instill their own audience measurement systems. HBO and FX have implemented a three-to-seven-day data collection system, meaning they wait to take into account DVR and streaming when calculating their ratings. It’s no wonder these networks have cultivated arguably the most talked about and critically acclaimed programming line-up in the current television landscape: they’re putting their money behind properties that people under 60 want to see.

Nielsen ratings shouldn’t be holding our television repertoire hostage. Network and advertising executives need to wake up and realize the world of television has moved on since the days of I Love Lucy.