Viewpoint: TV ratings – panic at the demo?

It’s as old as TV. A network counts the number of viewers, charges advertisers accordingly, and makes a profit. The more people a program reaches, the more the advertiser can ...
September 19, 2018

It’s as old as TV. A network counts the number of viewers, charges advertisers accordingly, and makes a profit. The more people a program reaches, the more the advertiser can sell a product, the more a distributor can justify subscription fees, and the more everyone wins.

More is better. Always. I’ve never seen an executive complain about reaching too many of the target viewers — unless the ad sales team has put too low a price on the costs of spots.

It’s how TV or any medium survives, right?

As someone who has worked in the numbers-driven business at various ad-supported networks, I learned quickly that you want your programming to reach as many viewers as possible, especially in your network’s “key demos” — broken down by age, gender, income, geography, and more. And despite flaws with Nielsen and other measurements, I’ve come to terms with the system: It’s how you determine a program’s reach and often, its ultimate success.

That’s where it gets interesting, though. In a fractured media universe, what do you do with those numbers? With so many networks and services competing for eyeballs, does anyone care anymore? How should we look at ratings these days?

A bunch of sometimes contradictory axioms floats throughout the industry:

Ratings mean everything. Let’s get real: When you hear that a series is cancelled, there’s a very, very good chance it’s not generating enough viewers. At some point, even the worthiest programs are judged by their ability to draw a crowd. (Unless severe trauma breaks out, in a Roseanne kind of way.) While there are plenty of loss leaders that add luster to a supplier’s image, if there are too many of those — and not enough income — advertisers and subscribers stay away, profits decline, shows get cancelled, business goes sour, and heads roll.

Ratings are meaningless. Then again, you hear this statement a lot — how traditional ratings don’t count for much anymore, especially those overnight numbers that tell you who watched the night before. It’s really, they say, about reaching the right audience, often over days, weeks or months. Or maybe it’s about measuring the impact of a program by how much “buzz” it generates, awards it can bring in, or how many YouTube hits it gets. So, it is possible that ratings are less meaningful these days, but it’s likely to be in situations where there are goals other than generating more money from sheer tonnage of viewers. And, it seems everyone is getting into the act of trying to judge a show’s quality with or without actual ratings (as illustrated in this article from Paste).

Advertisers want more than numbers. This is ancient news but still a hot pursuit. Advertisers crave more than just a commercial spot and look for product integration whenever possible. This is more difficult to do in factual, documentary or reality series than fully scripted comedy and drama, or studio shows. Many advertisers would love to be part of the actual content — a state of affairs that recently reached a dubious high point on the daytime soap General Hospital, which featured a guest appearance by Col. Sanders and Kentucky Fried Chicken in the body of the show.

Ratings are smaller than ever. This is understandable. With so many networks and viewing options, it’s inevitable that the pieces of the viewership pie will get smaller. Last decade’s average rating would be a top performance today. Networks today can only dream of the numbers they racked up in the 1990s.

Old people don’t count. Advertisers love young people, who supposedly buy things with less prodding than required for older viewers. The big prize is often the viewership between the ages of 18 and 49. You can see the flaw already: How many 18-year-olds do you know who have the same interests as a 49-year old? Madison Avenue has been grappling with this for years. There are periodic attempts to redefine the demos and start counting 55+ as a more valuable target. More ominously, there are advertisers who want to see the exact impact on their sales as a result of the commercials, a different form of measurement that relies less on demographics and more on whether the commercials brought in the bucks for the advertiser.

Netflix is a mystery. Netflix doesn’t reveal its viewership numbers, to the frustration of many in the business. But it doesn’t have to. Netflix doesn’t have a traditional ad-supported model and is only judged on the number of subscribers who shell out the monthly fee. It’s clear a lot of people watched Stranger Things and that creepy Star Trek-type episode on Black Mirror. Wouldn’t you like to know exactly how many?

Ratings research can help a production. When it comes to numbers, producers can go to extremes. As explained by ratings guru Don Robert, EVP of research at A+E Networks, they can fall into two camps: First, there are those producers who panic over ratings — who think their show is about to be cancelled if it drops a hundredth of a point. Then there are those who seemingly think ratings are irrelevant and wonder why their show was cancelled when only a handful of viewers were watching. In my experience, the best producers are interested in how viewers are reacting to their programs and films, at least to some extent. Are you holding the audience through to the end? Are the characters resonating? TV shows and movies are routinely tested to see how an audience reacts. This kind of qualitative research can inform decisions — to a point. Show biz lore is filled with stories about successful films and shows that tested poorly — see the fascinating story of how NBC’s then-programming chief, backed by research, thought Seinfeld was “too New York, too Jewish.” I personally remember a show at Animal Planet that tested abysmally and nevertheless became a big hit.

In this media-saturated universe, no one expects quick results anymore and playing strictly by the numbers doesn’t work. But ratings can provide solid clues if a program is working or not — for instance, whether the audience stayed for the entire program, which can be determined by the quarter-hour ratings or minute-by-minute numbers. If viewers are tuning out, you’ll want to know why, or else they’ll tune out for good.

Bottom line: If you’re in the business, you want viewers and creative success. To have the best shot at achieving that, producers and executives need to believe in their work but take in relevant data and then hope for the best. It is a universally acknowledged truth that no one ever really knows what will work and what won’t… at least until the ratings come in.

Michael Cascio is president and CEO of M&C Media LLC, where he advises selected media and production partners, and produces documentaries. He is also a guest speaker and writer, whose recent article for the Sunday New York Times revealed how his experience as a backstage janitor prepared him for a career in television. At National Geographic, A&E, Animal Planet, and MSNBC, Cascio has won four Emmys, two Oscar nominations and a “Producer of the Year” award.

About The Author