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Nielsen TV Ratings are Flawed: Why TV ratings mean less and less

Updated on June 17, 2013

Nielsen TV Ratings Are flawed. Quite simply, they are wrong and inaccurate. The so called bell-weather of deciding what show is popular or not is missing on key element in their rating system. You.

How many people do you know provide input to Nielsen? I personally have never provided my viewing habits, nor has anyone I’ve ever known been included in this “representation” of America. At best, TV ratings are from the networks for the networks. In reality however, these networks pitch their shows as the “number 1 watched comedy in America”, or the best show on TV. Really? How do the Nielsen ratings work?

How do Nielsen Ratings Work: Nielsen TV ratings have what they call, TV Families. TV families are expected to represent a cross-section of representative homes throughout the U.S. Their viewing is measured by TV meters and Local People Meters which capture information on what’s being viewed and when and, in the major U.S. markets, specifically who and how many are watching. Additionally, Nielsen collects more than two million paper diaries from across the country each year during “sweeps” (from Nielsen’s Home Page).

This means that over 2,000,000 people a year are tagged to rate their viewing habits. If Nielsen deploys 2,000,000 paper diaries to people, plus engages numerous millions of other families to participate, and have been doing this for over 70 years…..wouldn’t you think by now, we would have all been tapped for participation, or at least know someone who has?

I find this extremely odd that the “ratings” which are designed to be scientific, can scientifically exclude 99% of America over a 70 year period. Statistically speaking, you couldn’t run the same sample through the same population year over year without bias. If Nielsen truly wanted representative sampling, their representation would be subject to uncertainty and thus, each American with a TV would have an equal opportunity to be selected. The fact that none of us have been selected, is proof enough that when you hear the ratings results, they are about as conclusive as a fly in the wind.

The fact is, there is bias galore in TV ratings and rightfully so. The TV programming industry is big business. Try as they may to “statistically sample” and accurately assess viewer habits, the fact that most people have never been asked, is proof positive enough that the ratings are hocus pocus. What is really sad, is when a show you like gets caught in the cross fire.

For instance, take Arrested Development. I find it hard to believe that people simply didn’t connect with the show when it was on the air a few years ago….and yet, Kim Kardashian is watchable? It doesn’t add up. Common folks, people like you and I are probably a bit tired of reality TV and yet, more and more of it is thrown down our throats. I’m not recommending or watching most of these shows, but somewhere, in between the numbers, there is mythical support. Take the show “American Ninja Warrior” or “King of the Nerds”. Really? You only have to watch 2 minutes of each show to know it’s a dud, and yet it gets all the way through screen tests and put on air? Who in their right mind thought that was a good idea, and yet compete and battle each other for bragging rights over something that isn’t much to brag over they do.

Take the CBS and NBC battle of 2012 with CBS trying to pump one of it’s shows, NCIS by saying, ”most watched”, while on the next channel, on NBC., they’re saying Sunday Night Football is the most watched of the season. Obviously both cant be right, but both do use different formula’s to calculate their “ratings”. At the end of the day, who really cares? Do you care that your favorite show on TV is the “Most Watched”. Just as long as it’s on the air is good enough for me. And who really watches NCIS? Most watched show? No one in my circle watches it. Can’t say that half the show’s rated ‘popular” are things that I watch…and if I’m not watching it, and you’re not watching….who is?

Top 5 Rated Shows 2012:

  1. Sunday Night Football
  2. Modern Family
  3. The Big Bang Theory
  4. The Voice
  5. Grey’s Anatomy

Top Rates Shows of 2013

  1. NCIS
  2. Sunday Night Football
  3. The Big Bang Theory
  4. NICS-LA
  5. Person of Interest

What is interesting about this list, is that NCIS wasn’t even in the top 10 in 2012, 2011, and prior and all of a sudden, the show is “most watched”. Keep in mind, this show has been on the air for a decade, starting in 2003. I find it hard to believe that this show is now the most popular show on TV considering for the past decade, it wasn’t even in the top ten. Unless they’re counting re-runs (since old episodes run concurrent to new ones),possibly it could add up, but lets face it, when Hollywood starts turning to accountants to help their advertising, there’s a problem. I think there is a bit of fear at the networks, that more and more people are switching, nay, ditching live shows and starting to stream what they want, when they want it. Sooner or later, Nielsen ratings will be a thing of the pass as we will soon truly know what the most watched show is, based on number of streams online and while we won’t be surprised, Hollywood is in for an awakening..

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