The Ugly Truth About the TV Ratings Game

By: Tiffany Vogt

In response to my article “The Year Round Programming Debate: Do We Want Our Summer Shows in Winter?” one program executive provided the following rationale for why networks are doing so.  He proffered that it was for “strategic business reasons” in order to attract and secure Fall ad sales and to achieve ratings goals that his network moved a number of summer programs onto the Fall broadcast slate.  He also attempted to justify the move by citing that the shows that were moved were achieving “healthy” C3/L7 data numbers – which translates to ratings including 3-day DVR playback and 7-day DVR playback. 
But, as TVbytheNumbers emphasized in their recent articles “Dear Fans of Low-Rated Shows: Ignore the Deceptive ‘Percentage Gain from DRV [change to DVR]’ Rankings,” DVR numbers are but a “Jedi Mind Trick” and “Network Jedi Mind Tricks: Live+7 Ratings and Your Favorite Show”, the C3/L7 ratings virtually amount to no ad revenue and are just reported for press purposes.
In fact, the same network executive (Ted Linhart, VP Research for USA Network) explained on Twitter, “Never look at C7, not used for anything, don’t feel comfortable releasing C3 – some clients don’t have it yet.”  He went on to explain in response to TVbytheNumber’s articles, “Yes, that is true.  But will say rewarding internally to see that many more people watched than we thought.  Morale and pride.”  In addition, he further clarified, “To be clear what we say is that the increase from Live+ Same Day to Live + 7 is meaningless to ad revenue.”

Translation: the DVR-play back ratings showing increased viewership essentially do not count.  They are simply a way to measure that more people watched a show, but there is no MONEY that comes from that viewership.  Thus, essentially viewers tuning in late are not financially supporting their shows.

When pressed further, Mr. Linhart provided as proof of his network’s satisfaction with one of their summer show’s performance for November and December the fact it gained 2 million viewers in the 18-49 year old demograph. This is what is key. Demograph ratings are equivalent to gold in Hollywood.  However, if you are a viewer outside of the demograph – then you do not count.  Your viewership is less desirable.
It is all about increased demographic ratings. Demographs sell at a higher rate and thus bring in higher ad dollars – more revenue from less viewers. 
Incredible, but true.  If you are in the magical 18-34 year old demograph, you are simply worth more to a network programmer. 

But it begs the question: How do they know exactly who is watching?  While a Nielsen subscriber may state they are in a specific age group, that may not necessarily be true. Who is verifying the ages of the Nielsen viewers?  And who is verifying that the person turning the dial in the Nielsen household is the person registered?  Perhaps there is someone else in the household who falls outside the registered age group who is watching the television?  And what about those DVR-ratings?  While Time Warner, Comcast, TiVo and other DVR-providers may be sharing viewership patterns, they do not necessarily collect data on the ages of their subscribers – and even if they did, it is still nearly impossible to verify that the information about a viewer’s age is accurate or that the subscribing viewer is in control of the television remote at all times.  For after all, not every person with a television hooked-up to a DVR unit lives alone.
Thus, ratings data is not infallible.  It is faulty at best.  But it is this very data that draws in the ad revenue for which the network executives are dependent. So as long as the “reported” Nielsen or DVR-data falls within the coveted 18-34 year old demograph, they are getting more money.  It does not matter whether the network lost viewers by moving a television show to a less desirable timeslot or more crowded time of the year – so long as they increased their 18-34 year old demograph.  Then they are ecstatic.   
But I say this is unfair to fans and the creators of the shows.  A creator/writer or anyone who works on a TV show wants more viewers – not less.  They want more people enjoying their blood, sweat and tears to create television magic; and fans do not want to be forced out of watching their shows because they are deemed too old.  Did you shudder the minute you turned 35 because you realized that you were no longer the desired television demograph?  Did you scream your frustration at aging because it made you commercially undesirable? 

This is exactly what television executives have deemed us as.  We’re too old to be in the desirable television audience.  We don’t count and are not counted.  We are worthless.  Our viewership means little or nothing because we are not commercially desirable. 

This is absurd.

Is it really worthwhile (financially feasible) for a television network to sacrifice 2 million viewers simply because there is a higher number of viewers in the coveted demograph?   
In its 3rd season, BURN NOTICE had 7.6 million viewers as of August 26, 2009.  When it returned in January 2010, it returned to only 5.4 million viewers, which slid to 4.3 million by the end of its winter run on March 3, 2010.  A similar drop was seen when BURN NOTICE ended its summer run on August 26, 2010 with 6.29 million viewers to return to only 4.32 million as of November 11, 2010. 
In its 5th season, PSYCH had 4.11 million as of August 18, 2010, but returned to only 2.79 million on November 10, 2010.  Its ratings bumped up for its TWIN PEAKS homage episode on December 2, 2010 to 3.53 million, but then returned to 2.9 million for its season finale on December 22, 2010.
These ratings illustrate that nearly 2 million viewers were sacrificed for each show.  If USA Network believes these numbers are still generating a profit margin for them, then they must be relying on demograph revenue.  Any other show on television with such a huge loss of viewership would surely mean cancellation – regardless of the number of viewers in the coveted demographic range.
But this is the world television as we know it today.  Live ratings are still king.  Live + 3 day DVR numbers rarely reflected a significant number of viewers.  It is only Live + 7 day DVR numbers that show a big jump – and that data is not worth a penny.  Advertisers are not willing to pay money for late-stragglers.
So as you sit in front of your TV, think about it.  Are you watching live?  Are you financially supporting your show?  Or are you one of the late-to-the-party viewers who watches typically 3 or more days after a particular show has aired? 
The next time you wonder why your TV shows keep disappearing off the television landscape, you might want to think about WHEN you actually watch your shows.  It does make a difference.  In the meantime, do not be fooled by press data that claims significant increases in viewership with DVR ratings added in.  That will not save a show.  It is simply for boasting-rights.
And if you are outside of the 18-34 year old demograph, do not even worry about it — you do not count anyway.

Tiffany Vogt is a contributing writer to The TV Addict. She has a great love for television and firmly believes that entertainment is a world of wondrous adventures that deserves to be shared and explored – she invites you to join her. Please feel free to contact Tiffany at or follow her at on Twitter (@TVWatchtower). Tiffany also writes as a columnist for NiceGirlsTV, AirlockAlpha and InsideBlip.

For all the latest TV news and reviews

  • Nick

    Question is: Why do networks and advertisers expect such high ratings for a particular “live” show….when there are now 5 networks, plus innumerable cable outlets, all pulling for the same viewers? And then to dismiss the Live+3 or Live+7 data altogether? Ridiculous.

    I am ONE person, with a limited number of hours to watch television. The fact that I would watch one show and even *consider* taping a show airing at the same time (to watch soon thereafter) makes it irrelevant? That is the folly of TV advertising. The ad community better get a clue real quick and get on the DVR and/or online-viewing bandwagon.

    This antiquated theory of “only live viewing is valuable” may have worked when there were 3 networks and no cable 20 years ago, but it doesn’t apply today. Get measurements in place, and appreciate that viewers DO want to watch the shows you’re advertising in….we just CAN’T watch them all AT THE SAME TIME. Sheesh.

  • When you watch the recorded show do you watch the comercials or skip them to save time.

    Why do networks want to save shows if people dont watch them live… advertisers pay to place comercials to be watched not skipped over with a dvr… right?

    Unless they change the way they present comercials dvr viewers will never matter.

  • Anonymous

    We actually matter until 49, but we matter the most before we turn 35. The reason is it is more difficult for advertisers to reach the coveted 18-34 age group. Once you pass that they assume you have nothing better to do then sit home and watch television and their advertisments. So they don’t want to pay to reach you as you are an easy get. There actually is a very excellent explanation of all of this at As I am not a Nielsen viewer I have no guilt about watching off my DVR and skipping commercials. Nothing I do is being counted so I may as well enjoy television without the ads. Honestly if it mattered, if my watching the commercials had a chance of saving shows that I love, I’d sit through them, but since it doesn’t why bother.

  • Nick

    Totally concur….whoever invented the DVR has done more damage to the TV industry than they’ll ever know. Broadcasters better have their ‘think tanks’ together devising ways of combating the fast-forward option. Otherwise, ad dollars will go bye-bye. It’s simply unrealistic to expect (way too busy) viewers to watch *YOUR* particular show when *YOU* want them to, execs. Not when so much of the programming is anything-but-must-see.

  • Brent MacArthur

    The even uglier truth of ad-supported television is that networks do not sell programs; they sell viewers. Programs are only bait to draw in viewers. The part about the networks needing a certain number of viewers, in a certain demographic, at a certain time is correct. If they don’t hit those numbers, they cannot sell the show to advertisers. Therefore, the networks try to make something that is compelling to viewers and present it to them at a time that is most likely to draw them in – to view the ads. While it is lamented that the 18 – 34 demographic is the most desirable, there is no analysis as to why that demographic is so coveted. Grossly generalizing, that demographic tends to have fewer responsibilities (i.e. families, mortgages, etc..) and be more image/brand conscious. These things combine to give them more disposable income and they are more likely to spend frivolously (buy things they don’t need). It is true that networks don’t care about viewers who don’t watch the ads. At the same time, advertisers don’t care about viewers who don’t buy their products. They aren’t spending all that money on ads just so that people can watch TV. They want to sell product. If the viewers of a particular show are not going to buy their product, they will not advertise on that show, and if advertisers are not going to pay for a show, networks won’t produce it. Thus, the big question (to those who enjoy ad-supported television) isn’t WHEN you are watching your shows. It is: are you buying the products advertised during your shows? Are you supporting your show’s sponsors? I haven’t watched broadcast TV since 2003 (with the exceptions of the series finale of “Lost” and the last game of the last World Series). If a network is willing to offer a show – without ads — for free, I will wait the day or so to watch it. I will not feel guilty about this because the network is offering that option. Since I do not like ads, I frequently buy my shows a la carte, through the Zune service (others, such as Amazon, offer similar services). Thus, I am paying directly for the shows I am watching. If something isn’t worth watching, I won’t pay for it. There is direct feedback to the network on what is selling and what isn’t. Microsoft reports back to them that I purchased their show. Since I paid for the episode, WHEN I watch it is irrelevant. “The Walking Dead” was the top seller for “season passes” on the Zune service. That, combined with Nielson ratings, caused the network to fast-track the second season. They saw that the show sold. Not only did it attract viewers for advertisers, people were willing to pay to watch it – without ads. I think TV will eventually shift more to the model I am using, though they will fight it just as the record industry fought people buying individual songs instead of a whole album. I’m not saying it will even happen in my lifetime, but I think “timeslip” TV is the future. People want to watch what they want to watch when they want to watch it. As stated in the article, that does not work in an ad-supported world. What we may end up seeing in the mainstream, for those who still don’t want (or can’t afford) to pay for shows, is a sort of hybrid, like the current On Demand (or Hulu) model, with fewer ads. Yes, this will also mean fewer shows. But I don’t think the average person really wants 300 channels and to pay large monthly fees for packages of networks (and shows) they have no desire to watch. Whether or not that is true in general, it is true for me, and I will continue to avoid ad-supported television.

  • Rachael

    DVR numbers don’t count for everyone who owns a DVR only Neilson families who own DVRs. The DVR itself is not what transmits the information about viewing habits.

  • saluxgreen

    I can’t watch my shows live, because network television is not available in my area. I watch my shows online. I DO watch advertising, though it is limited, and there is no option to skip over it. And yet I am NEVER counted for ratings. EVER. Stupid, huh? Ratings are outdated collection methods.

    From what I understand, don’t they still use boxes? So if you don’t have a box, are you even counted? How could I financially support my favorite TV show if I don’t have a box? Might as well watch it online, at least they’re able to capture the number of views, whether or not they choose to use the data.