An Introduction to Television Ratings

We’re a couple weeks into the new fall season and with that, I have new ratings data to look at in the mornings! I first started looking into the concept of ratings after Lie to Me was cancelled in order to better understand why some shows stay on the air and some don’t. The way they are reported can be a little confusing and it gets difficult to parse what information is most important and I know there is a tendency without certain fandoms to excessively worry over ratings or misconstrue them in a way that suits their own spin on a show so it is my hope that this guide helps clarify the different numbers that are reported on and how they can be used by networks to determine a show’s fate for another season.

What Are Ratings Used For?

While creating a show is a creative endeavor, keeping it on the air is a business decision so ratings are a marketing tool. They primarily exist to sell you to advertisers. High ratings (whether overall or in a particularly marketable demographic) means that advertising during a particular program becomes more desirable to do as the reach will be greater. From a non-business perspective, ratings data that is collected can also demonstrate some of the cultural reach of a program. More people watching a particular show tends to result in a greater impact on pop culture, especially when talking to casual viewers. While not used or measured in the same way, social media data can also be used to demonstrate fan engagement, which becomes important when scheduling cons or creating merchandise.

How Are They Collected?

The ones we see reported are collected by Nielsen and are based on a statistical sampling of the US. This means that not every person in the US is measured, just those taken from a representative sample. The numbers are then extrapolated to provide greater information on the total US viewing population. Ratings are collected through both viewing diaries and television-connected devices in selected homes to judge what was watched.

What Do They Mean?

The morning after shows air, live plus same day ratings are released. Two numbers are most often reported, the total number of viewers and the 18-49 rating. Total number of viewers is self-explanatory. The number is often interesting but of less use to advertisers. Traditionally, they have most cared about viewers between the ages of 18 and 49. They are less interested in raw numbers, but rather look at a percentage and that is the A18-49 number.

For example, this week Empire got a 5.5 A18-49 rating, meaning that 5.5% of adults 18-49 watched the show either as it aired or on their DVRs later that night.

Ratings data is also released for larger time periods. A show’s L+3, L+7, and L+30 are also reported as they become available to demonstrate viewers over a three, seven, and 30 day time period. While these aren’t the ratings that are important to advertisers, who are more concerned with the number of people who watched the commercials in a show in a three-day period, it does provide extra informations to networks about the way in which their show is being watched.

How Are They Used?

Typically, ratings of shows across networks are irrelevant to a show’s future. It is the network average that most matters to a show. Things that are performing well under the average A18-49 rating for the network are more in danger of being cancelled than a show performing at or above the average. Averages change season-to-season and tend to drop across all networks as viewing becomes more fragmented and cable shows and streaming gain more prominence. Shows also tend to drop between seasons as viewers cut the cord or simply lose interest between seasons.  

I Need to Worry About Them, Right?

Regardless of what ratings say, they are never worth worrying about. I know losing shows you love is hard. Whether it is their first or tenth season, no one wants to say goodbye to a show they are still enjoying. But since they are out of the control of any one person, it’s better for your mental health to avoid stressing over them.

They are a tool, primarily for the networks but also for us as viewers. Recognizing that a show has low ratings and is not likely to be renewed allows me to prepare myself in advance that the show will end. I’m not a huge fan of surprises, so this method works very well for me. It doesn’t make me any less sad when it happens, but since I started looking at ratings in the 2011-2012 season, I’ve only been surprised by the cancellation of two of my shows. For me, the advance warning is nice. It’s not a foolproof way to know what will happen with a show but it works well enough.

But The Internet Said My Show Was Down This Week!

This tends to be one of those things that sounds like a bigger deal than it is. Week-to-week fluctuations happen. Sometimes your show will be up a little bit, sometimes it will be down. Life happens. People who normally watch live had plans or something special was airing on another channel that they wanted to see more. So a fluctuation of .1 or .2 points isn’t anything to be concerned by. Larger drops that don’t ever rise again do carry more meaning but as I said above, use that knowledge to be prepared rather than worried.

Low Ratings Don’t Always Equal Cancellation, Sign My Petition Now!

This is true, low ratings aren’t a guarantee a show will be cancelled. There are always surprises like Galavant and Hannibal (until this year) that beat the odds. Other factors, like co-production status, international sales, and bundling the production costs of low-rated shows with desirable new ones also have a role in keeping a show on the air. The effect of high streaming numbers and fan enthusiasm isn’t often directly seen (because they are more difficult to monetize),  but they can influence the ease with which a show can be sold to other networks or services in the event of a cancellation.

How Do I Find Ratings for a Show?

There are many places on the internet that report this information. My favorite source is @TVMoJoe (one of Vulture’s editors) but TVLine is also a good source as is TVbythenumbers. For those specifically looking for prediction information, TV Grim Reaper (formerly the Cancellation Bear) has one of the better track records but his style isn’t the right fit for everyone.


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