With Television Ratings, the Problem Isn’t Monitoring, It’s Reporting

Over at TV By the Numbers, Robert Seidman argues that even if Nielsen collected more comprehensive ratings data on viewers, even those who aren’t in the sample pool, or who don’t have set-top televisions at all, viewers will still be unhappy when their favorite shows are cancelled. And he says a more comprehensive system would be prohibitively expensive and painfully slow:

Would a complete census be more accurate than Nielsen? If you could get it, it would, without a doubt, be more accurate. But TV ratings measurement exists for the purpose of buying/selling TV advertising. The networks and advertisers aren’t going to be willing to pay for it and as expensive as Nielsen is (and it’s very expensive) the census style system would be multiple orders of magnitude more expensive to maintain and manage. The networks and advertisers aren’t going to pay for something like that for a system that might only be a little more accurate.

On top of that you’d still probably need Nielsen or something like it because the census system would have so much data to crunch it wouldn’t likely be able to produce fast national ratings the next morning and final ratings the next afternoon. The networks need the information fast so they can react and make scheduling decisions.

I think the larger problem is less developing a new system, and more reporting of data in ways that would help viewers understand the true audiences for their favorite shows. Some of this is a problem of overlapping systems, all of which report data differently or fail to report at all. Community fans, for example, see the low Nielsen ratings for the show, but have a sense that their numbers are larger due to time-shifting beyond the seven-day period, or to viewers without televisions who are watching the show on Hulu, which doesn’t report streaming data publicly, especially because social-media chatter around the show makes it seem like the Nielsen numbers couldn’t possibly be representative. If all those numbers were available, we’d have a better idea of the total fanbase for individual shows, even if the data had to be pieced together from multiple sources.

The other thing that might help in the current system is changing the way ratings data is presented. As things work presently, data’s released sporadically, sometimes through press releases from Nielsen or the networks. There aren’t tools available to the public, or even to journalists, that make it easy to pull data, graph trend lines, or compare shows. To a certain extent, that’s understandable: gathering ratings data is an expensive, time-consuming process, and Nielsen’s business model seems to work fairly well for it. But in January, FX President John Landgraf suggested his network might build a portal to provide more fine-grained data than normally gets reported to journalists, in part as a tool to help the network get public credit for its full viewership, rather than the viewers the current system credits it for. His isn’t the only network—or the only fan base—who could benefit from that kind of information.