Imagine this: week after week you and your friends TiVo “My Name Is Earl” and watch it in your spare time, remaining dedicated to the show, if not the timeslot. But then disaster strikes: NBC announces they’re canceling the show due to low ratings. What about your faithful viewing? And that of your friends? It didn’t count. You can thank Nielsen for that.
The Nielsen ratings system, that is. And to make matters worse, when Nielsen Media Research--the company responsible for calculating the ratings--admitted technical problems last month, the failures of the current system only became more apparent.
The ratings, based on data collected from so-called random families, are not only used to determine audience size, but also influence advertising rates. One TV exec recently called the ratings “the sole currency [of] networks,” but faith in them is wearing thin. There’s only one solution: a massive overhaul.
Significant problems with the current system have come to light in recent years, such as response bias, undercounting minority viewers, and discounting recorded and on-line viewing as well as viewings outside the home. Most recently Nielsen admitted its ratings might be off by 8 percent--a margin of error we shouldn’t be willing to accept.
Nielsen ratings aren’t just determining which network came out on top which night. In some cases, like in the instance of “My Name Is Earl,” they directly affect the future of shows. When it come times for the networks to choose which shows to review, they rely heavily on overnight ratings to steer them in one direction or another. But when those ratings are delayed for days, like they were last month, everyone--executives, actors, even viewers--wait with baited breath for the coveted information.
It’s “incredibly difficult for all of us to run our businesses if the measurement systems aren’t timely and accurate,” Peter Seymour, a Walt Disney executive, recently said.
More to his point, too many futures hang in the balance. When the jobs of not just actors but script writers, lighting directors, cameramen and even caterers are on the line, we cannot settle for a broken system.
Nielsen is pretty much the only name In the game--virtually no other company provides similar data--but that doesn’t mean we have to accept its methodology. The company has contracts with the networks and it’s clear they’re not fulfilling their obligations. Sunbeam, which owns a TV station in Miami, recently filed a lawsuit against the company, and it’s time the rest of us did as well.
The minor attempts Nielsen has made to salvage its reputation--namely, the introduction of “people meters,” a “gadget” that collects more viewer habits than ever before--is just a small step in the right direction and not without consequences. According to The Miami Herald, stations saw a significant drop in ratings collected by the meters, leading to even more confusion.
Barbara McFarland, a Nielsen vice president, only recently acknowledged the challenges the company faces: “'It's never been more complicated to track TV viewing. Never before have you had so many options -- not only do you have so many shows and channels to pick from, but you can pick the time to do it,” she said. But that explanation, or excuse rather, is not enough. We need tangible changes.
No one is questioning whether “American Idol” is in fact the top rated show on television. That much we all can agree on. But it’s the “bubble shows” and advertising revenue that we need to be concerned about.
Changing the Nielsen system won’t be easy and won’t be fail-proof, but it’s a necessary if we want to keep the television industry not only alive but thriving.