The Nielsen Conundrum: Why An Entire Nation of TV Addicts Are Being Held Hostage By 16,000 Viewers

If you are a television viewer today, you probably have scratched your head in bewilderment at how television ratings are determined.  Simply put, there are an estimated 16,000 viewers that have Nielsen black boxes, and those 16,000 people are determining what the rest of us are allowed to watch on television.
Essentially, if you are not one of the privileged few with a Nielsen black box, then you are simply a calculated-statistic based on the viewing patterns of one of those 16,000 who may be in the same age group as you – regardless of the fact that you may have better taste in television shows.

No matter how many times a television executive may try to dazzle you with their calculations of “DVR plus 3 day” and “DVR plus 7 day calculations,” the cold harsh truth is that those numbers do not determine which shows get to stay on the broadcast schedule.   Those numbers are simply for bragging rights.  It is a way for a show or network to proclaim that their shows are pulling in more viewers – albeit, viewers which are not really financially supporting their shows as they do not count towards securing advertising revenue.
The life-blood of television are the advertisers who pay millions of dollars to have their products advertised during the dreaded commercials.  It is those advertising dollars that pay for each of our beloved television shows.  Shows that are more expensive to film because they (a) have higher profile actors, (b) which [take out which] have been on for longer periods of time, or [take out or] (c) need expensive special effects (e.g., sci-fi shows); all of these require more advertising dollars in order to keep them on the air.
Whether you love or hate reality TV, it is cheap.  It has slowly begun to dominate the primetime broadcast schedule simply because it costs less to produce – and astoundingly, more viewers are allowing themselves to be sucked into these semi-voyeuristic shows.  So reality TV shows now occupy nearly one-half of what you can watch between the hours of 8:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. on 6 out 7 nights of the week because it is cheap and more viewers are watching it.  For network executives and advertisers, reality TV is a win-win.
For many viewers, reality TV is an anathema.  But if you like it, then you are in luck.  There’s plenty of it and it is never in danger of cancellation.  However, if you prefer to watch scripted dramas, comedies, genre series, sci-fi/fantasy shows or “quality” television – such programs are frequently on the broadcast endangered species list.  Fans, critics, and talent associated with such shows hold their breath all season long to find out if their show will be given the miracle of another season; and for many, they do not even last that long as their economic value is deemed insufficient the second they hit the airwaves.
Television used to be a lot more predictable.  Shows like THE X-FILES and THE PRACTICE were around for 10 years easily.  But in today’s increasingly fragmented television landscape, there are not just the Top 5 broadcast networks to choose from, there are nearly 20 trying to compete with original scripted programming – and hundreds more channels offering talk shows, competition shows, game shows, variety shows and other quasi-reality TV fare.  With an abundance of choices of which channel to watch, more and more niche audiences are being valued differently.  Niche meaning:  golfers, sports fans, retirees, viewers earning over $100K per year, teenagers, pre-teens, viewers with higher education, or even audiences determined by their political, religious or socio-economic background. 
Networks like the CW, Syfy, Lifetime, A&E, FX and TNT are looking to secure modest niche audiences that they can then sell at a premium to advertisers, which is why shows like SUPERNATURAL, EUREKA, BREAKING BAD, MAD MEN and PSYCH can run for years with modest numbers of viewers.  They offer a niche audience that advertisers will pay better rates for; thus making such shows a success and economically viable – and therefore desirable to their networks.
But for the mainstream networks such as ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX, they must achieve significantly higher numbers of viewership.  They are not looking for a niche audience; they are looking for a mass audience – the highest number of viewers they can obtain in the 18-34 or 18-49 year old age groups.  It is a race to lure in as many eyeballs in those age ranges as possible; which is why shows like BLUE BLOODS or HARRY’S LAW, both which pull in over 10 million viewers every week, are still considered “on the bubble” – they pull in large number of viewers, but only a very few of them fit within the required 18-34 year old range.  The viewers they attract are simply commercially undesirable – and advertisers either will not pay for older viewers or won’t pay as much.
It’s a Darwinian world.  Survival of the fittest is key.  And survival of a television show is determined on whether they can deliver the right kind of viewers.  Whether it be a niche audience or an audience within the desirable age bracket, those viewers are considered more “fit” in the world of television. 
It is a travesty as far as creative programming choices go.  Every year, dozens of fantastic television shows – many of which are several light-years above the quality of what remains – are struck down simply because they cannot deliver the one thing demanded of them:  a profitable fan base.  Shows like Emmy-winning PUSHING DAISIES and FIREFLY die prematurely because they could not deliver a sufficient audience in the right age range or a desirable niche audience.  Every year we hear the same outcry from millions of fans weeping over shows they loved, but which the Nielsen audience did not embrace.  Most recently, we saw the heart-rending cancellations of TERRIERS, STARGATE: UNIVERSE and UNNATURAL HISTORY.  Soon to join these shows on the chopping block are perhaps FRINGE, SUPERNATURAL, PARENTHOOD and BROTHERS & SISTERS.
Television ratings is a labyrinth of complex equations – but in the end it boils down to one secret ingredient:  the black box.  For the vast majority of television viewers, 99.9% of us are held-hostage by the 16,000 people who have the magical Nielsen box.  They are the lucky ones – the ones who get to decide what the rest of us watch.  Even the average television executive would give their teeth to have one of those boxes to guarantee the shows that they have staked their own careers on to ensure it gets another chance to survive. 
But for the rest of us, we are prisoners of the black box phenomena.  We are the majority whose viewing preferences are spit out through an equation based on what the Nielsen 16,000 are actually watching.  Personally, I would prefer to have what I actually watch count.  I know I do not fit within any of the mass viewing habits of Nielsen viewers.  The same could be said for each and every viewer.  We are unique and what we watch cannot be determined by the whim of someone else’s viewing patterns.  Even amongst your family and friends, you probably do not watch all the same shows.  So why are perfect strangers being used as the standard to determine what you watch? 
The unfairness, the incomprehensible illogic of letting 16,000 people determine what we are allowed to watch on television is ludicrous.  It is time to stop letting the Nielsen 16,000 have the voice of the majority.  Like in the U.S. elections, the electoral vote may determine who is president, but we still allow each U.S. citizen the right to vote and be counted.  Our democratic process demands that we have one-person, one-vote counted.  It is time to demand that Nielsen or whoever wants to step up to the challenge to start measuring each and every viewer and letting our actual viewing habits dictate what is on television.
So it is time to demand: one viewer, one vote – and set us free from the chains of the nameless Nielsen 16,000.

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.

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  • Sretav

    Yes. Every time somoene says “Watch whatever show tonight. They need the ratings” or something similar, I scream “It doesn’t matter if I watch or not, or if I illegally download it or PVR it. What I watch and how I watch it, isn’t being counted.”

  • Sretav

    How do the cable companies/networks gage viewer numbers?

    How do Canada and other other countries do it?

    There must be a way to get real time, accurate numbers. Do the networks still use the outdated Nielsen system because of boredom? history? politics?

  • I’ve always wondered if they take into account college students or other alternative living arrangement people who aren’t in a stable/trackable household with two kids and a dog. Whenever I hear about it they are always using/talking about families. I am pretty sure my viewing habits are different from people who have to wait until the kiddies are asleep. For months at a time college aged kids are nomads, yet they are big chunk of the viewers/spenders. How do they keep track of all of that?

  • Do we need to find the contact information of those 16,000 and campaign for our shows? Because manpower will not be a problem if it is to be done.

  • I can’t even begin to tell you how much I agree with *everything* you’ve just said. I’m an older viewer & my choices aren’t as “fit” as a younger viewer’s choices? Excuse me? Really? Every television manufactured in this country should have a built in signal that goes back to the Nielsen home base to be calculated as I am watching what I am watching. Period.

  • The only way those of us without a tracker can help is in DVR/hulu numbers, though I am not sure how much they really use those numbers in factoring a renewal. With Fringe they seem to point out the good DVR numbers and then ask for those DVR/hulu people to tune in live as well. That’s all fine and good, but unless we are counted our live viewing doesn’t do anyone any good. For Fringe I view it live (not tracked) and hulu it just so someone has seen I watched it. So frustrating…

  • Big Boss

    In terms of increasing the sample size – who is covering the additional cost of installing the extra panels? Who is covering the cost collating and analyzing this extra data?

    Also, how do you propose to get around the invasion of privacy that goes along with placing a monitoring device that can do all these things into everyone’s home?

    Nielsen works for fine for measuring “traditional” TV viewing. That’s not the real issue anymore. The issue is how networks/advertisers can capitalize on the increasing amount of usage of DVR/online/etc. Once they figure out how, and they will, we’ll see a big shift in how television viewing in general is tracked.

    P.S. It’s over 20,000 households now. 16,000 is the old sample size.

  • NJD

    I’ve read several times that even DVR numbers are Nielson participant numbers. The cable and satellite companies are not releasing those direct figures because they haven’t quite figured out how to monetize it yet.

  • Chrisjfailla

    You would really think that a more modernized viewer-counting system would make everyone happy and bring higher profits to the networks, but I don’t think it’s likely to happen. So I will continue to watch my favorite shows on FX, AMC, HBO, and Showtime while completely ignoring the drivel (and the advertising shown during it) that the major networks continue to put out. Their loss, not mine.

  • concerned

    College students are not the big spenders. They are on fixed incomes (i.e. their parents) which incomes are getting smaller every day. If advertisers insist on this archaic system they need to push out the back end some. At age 50, many parents still have kids in college or living at home, esp with the economy the way it has been. Their shopping habits have not changed much since they were in their 40’s. It’s a shame that quality shows are not always watched by the young and therefore have very short life spands in the world of tv programming.

  • Thanks very much for this wonderful blog;this is the kind of thing that keeps me going through the day.

  • Anonymous

    In Canada this is the same thing with another name : BBM

  • Anonymous

    If shows would do more product placement, it would make a huge difference. Cognitively the right side of the brain sees and registers symbols more effectively, than just watching a 30 second commercial. Do more product placement and tptb will see more money to keep out beloved shows on the air and companies can save on advertising. But I have yet to see anyone taking advantage of it.