CFC: How do TV ratings work and why do we care?

From Mav: So if you’re keyed into conservative media this week — and I get that most of our listeners aren’t, but I like to keep up on the whole political spectrum… even the crazies for work — you might have seen a very weird talking point making the rounds. Random alt-right news sites are trying to make the claim that the January 6 committee congressional hearings are a failure because they were doing poorly in the ratings. The theory here is that CBS, for instance, pulled in 3.5M viewers for the first night of the hearings but a rerun of Young Sheldon the week prior pulled 3.85M viewers. So CBS lost ratings and this was a failure because no one actually cared enough to watch the hearings. Uhhh… yeah. Of course, this sort of ignores that ABC, MSNBC and CNN were all showing the EXACT SAME THING so if you add them all together, 20M people watched the first night of coverage. It also ignores that Young Sheldon was followed that previous week by an episode of United States of Al, which only got 3M viewers, so the hearings were an increase. And it ignores that ABC actually had 5.2M viewers for the hearings by themselves… which is up from their special edition Jimmy Kimmel Live NBA finals preview which only pulled 3.1M. It’s almost like these articles were written by someone who is either being disingenuous or dumb and doesn’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. Probably both!

And sure, the truth is the Jan 6 hearings aren’t really about “ratings” here. Not in the classic sense, anyway. That’s not the reason they’re being aired. In fact, historically the news exists SEPARATE from ratings. Caring about news ratings numbers at all is a relatively new thing in the ratings sense. But also it’s probably arguable that while the idiots writing this right-wing “hot takes” don’t understand how ratings work. I don’t think most people do. They’re really sort of a lot of… numbers. Without much context. They’re very hard to compare. That’s not a conservative thing. It’s a ratings thing.

For instance, Netflix is very fond of shouting about how every show they make is their most popular show ever. They currently saying that about Stranger Things but before that it was Bridgerton and before that it was Stranger Things again and before that it was Orange is the New Black and before that House of Cards. Even when it’s not something they’re crowing about for as long, they pretty much find some record they can claim they’re breaking with any of their prestige projects. They’ve argued massive rating success on some level or another for The Chair, The Adam Project, Army of the Dead, and Red Notice. Does anyone really remember any of that? One of the problem here is that Netflix has a habit of sort of cooking their books. They also control what content gets pushed, so they can have whatever show up on that list they want if they try hard enough. But also, like I just said “what do these numbers even mean?” Is 3M viewers a lot? Is 20M?

The history of ratings is complex. Nielsen gives a ratings number, that isn’t in clear units, and then they give a share number, and then they split that into demographics. None of that really makes a lot of sense if you don’t already know what it means. We know that nearly 40 years later, the series finale to M*A*S*H is still the highest rated broadcast of all time… but it’s the ninth most viewed after eight recent Super bowls that had lower ratings but higher numbers. How does that work? Traditionally they matter a lot for advertising revenue (less of a big deal in the premium streaming service era) and for compensation for cast and crew. But what’s the reason that regular people should care? And how should we interpret that? How are ratings calculated? How do we figure out streaming shows and DVR numbers? Does it matter that there’s just so much more to watch in 2022 than M*A*S*H had to deal with in 1983?

Well, that’s what I want to talk about on an upcoming show. I’m inviting back friend of the show and Nielsen Senior Vice President of Technology Mike Higgins to talk about how ratings work, how we should interpret them and why we should care. So let us know your thoughts and questions. What do you want to know about ratings?

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