Nielsen Ratings

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When TV viewers or entertainment professionals in the United States mention "ratings" they are generally referring to Nielsen Ratings, a system developed by the New York City-based firm Nielsen Media Research to determine which shows television viewers watch at what times. Other ratings systems include those developed by Arbitron for radio programming and the Q Score for general markets.

The system as it exists today was developed in the early 1960s by Arthur Nielsen, and has since been the primary source of audience measurement information in the television industry. Since television as a business makes money by selling audiences to advertisers, the Nielsen Television Ratings are the single most important element in determining advertising rates, schedules, and program content.

The company is owned by Dutch conglomerate VNU and recently relocated the majority of its production operations from its birthplace on Patricia Ave. in Dunedin, Florida to its newer Brooker Creek Global Technology and Information Center in Oldsmar, Florida.


Measuring ratings

Nielsen Television Ratings statistics are gathered in two ways: one is by extensive use of surveys, where viewers in various demographics are asked to report what television shows they watch at what times. The other is by the use of a limited number of Nielsen Boxes, which are small computers hooked up to a television in a home, which electronically records its activities and transmits them nightly to Nielsen. These Nielsen Boxes allow market researchers to study television viewing habits on a minute to minute basis, seeing at exactly what moment a viewer changed channels or turned off their TV. Unfortunately, the viewers are aware of being a Nielsen sample, leaving room for bias.

Ratings/Share and total viewers

Nielsen Television Ratings are reported by ranking the percentage for each show of all viewers watching television at a given time. As of 2004, there are an estimated 109.6 million television households in the USA. A single national ratings point represents 1%, or 1,096,000 households for the 2004-05 season. Share is the percentage of television sets in use tuned to a specific program. These numbers are usually reported as (ratings points/share). For example, Nielsen may report a show as receiving a 9.2/15 during its broadcast, meaning 9.2%, or 10,083,200 households on average were tuned in at any given moment. Additionally, 15% of all televisions in use at the time were tuned into this program. Nielsen re-estimates the number of households each August for the upcoming television season.

The Nielsen Media Research, Inc. company also provides statistics on estimated total number of viewers, and on specific demographics. Advertising rates are less influenced by total number of viewers than they are by appealing to particular demographics, such as age, sex, economic class, and area. Younger viewers are considered more attractive for many products, where as in some cases older and wealthier audiences are desired, or female audiences are desired over males. Television ratings are not an exact science, but they are a powerful force in determining the programming in an industry where millions of dollars are at stake every day.

Because ratings are based on samples, it is possible for shows to get 0.0 rating, despite having an audience; CNBC talk show McEnroe was one notable example.

People Meters

In 2004, the company introduced a new system to measure local ratings in the largest market areas using its People Meters instead of the traditional paper diaries. The system was criticized by News Corporation and advocates for minorities.

The Nielsen organization determines some of its overnight ratings in the largest media markets by the use of its so-called people meters, which allow instant notification of a change in viewership within a household, and the publication of overnight ratings. (People meters had already been in use in the Nielsen national ratings sample since 1984 - Nielsen's controversial plan was to expand their use to provide localized ratings in the largest US markets.)


Much of the ratings system, however, still consists of the completion by viewers of ratings diaries, in which a viewer records his or her viewing habits, generally for a week, in exchange for being advanced a nominal fee. These diaries play an especially important role during the four annual sweeps periods conducted in November, February, May, and July in an attempt to measure the entire national audience rather than just that in the largest people-metered markets. (Other, smaller sweeps are conducted through the year in the markets large enough to be measured by non-demographic meters, but not large enough to be measured by the demographic meters (people meters).)

Television networks and other programmers make unusual efforts to attract additional viewers during these periods, including programming almost entirely original programming as opposed to repeats, airing more special broadcasts, and often producing special finale or reunion episodes of especially popular programs. Even news programs are often involved, airing especially controversial or titillating investigative reports. For this reason, the "sweeps" system of national ratings has long been criticized as not representative of typical programming, and is supposedly in the process of being phased out as a result.

Missed viewers

Another criticism of the Nielsen ratings system is its failure to have a realistic system for measurement of television audience in environments outside the home, such as college dormitories, transport terminals, bars, and other public places where television is frequently viewed, often by large numbers of people in a common setting. Also, the rise of "time-shifting" through the use of VCRs, TiVo, and downloading episodes from the Internet have also not, critics claim, been sufficiently addressed by the system. (Although downloading episodes is presently considered improper, if not illegal, it is nonetheless a widespread practice.)

In February 2004, TiVo and Nielsen reached an agreement to provide information on DVR usage to the television industry.

Highest-rated shows in the Nielsen ratings

Each year, one program (or, in some cases, a tie) earns the highest average Nielsen rating for the corresponding television season. Here are past record-holders:

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