TV Ratings: Are They Really Accurate

How do TV executives know who is watching what on television?It’s impossible to know exactly what everyone is watching buta system designed by Nielson Media Research provides an estimatefor ratings.

Ratings are important because they determinewhether a show will be a hit or canceled. Also, the ratings set theadvertisement rates. When a show has a lot of viewers, TVprogrammers are able to charge a high price for commercial rates.Executives rely heavily on rating to determine whether a show is tobe canceled or not. But are the ratings really accurate?

Nielsen uses a couple different methods ofcollecting data. The first method is placing People Meters in 5,100randomly selected and recruited homes across the United States. Themeter measures what program is being watched and by whom. Viewersare identified in each household by separate buttons that areassigned to them on the meter including a one for guests. This isto keep track of the age and sex of each viewer. The TV source(broadcast, cable or Satellite) is also identified. Channelchanges, time and source are all electronically monitored on themeter. When a viewer sits down to watch a show they press theassigned bottom and when they are done watching TV they press thebutton off. A red light flashes to remind family members to presstheir assigned button.

Another way Nielsen measures television use isDiary Data. During sweeps they send out the diaries. Viewers areasked to write down what they watch for an entire week. MayraJimenez writes, “My family was once selected to be a”diary family” for a week. I was excited to be part ofthe research but my family didn’t feel the same way.”Wrote Jimenez, “I filled out my dairy as accurately as Icould, but I have to admit, it became a pain to fill out. Myfamily, on the other hand, didn’t fill it out atall…”

The problem with the People Meter is justbecause a viewer presses the button does not mean they are watchingthe show. Many people use the TV as background noise as they talkon the phone or prepare dinner. Viewers can get distracted andwonder into another room and forget to press the button to indicatethat they are finished watching TV.

Another problem is the randomly selectedaudience. Often times the people who are “randomlyselected” aren’t minorities. Thus the data that theyare collecting does not represent the true viewing audience. Justbecause one Black family watched The Parkers does not mean thatit’s popular with all Black viewing audiences.

In order to be more reliable Nielsen doesresearch on itself. They study and evaluate how people watch TV andhow the People Meter is actually used. According to NielsenMedia Research the proportion of households initially contacted bythe company and who agree to participate use the Metercorrectly.

It is important for these ratings to beaccurate. The success of the show depends on them. Networkexecutives should not only depend on ratings because theydon’t represent an accurate picture of the viewingaudience.