What Do The Nielson TV Ratings Really Mean?

Posted by Jordon Sturt - January 23, 2013 - Other TV News - No Comments

Are you a “Nielson family?” Do you even know what a Nielson family is? For decades now, the Nielson Company has been responsible for tracking audience engagement for all of our favorite television shows, so as to deliver that all-important data to the stations themselves. When a television show is placed in a top, prime-time spot, it’s usually because it has a high Nielson rating . . . and when a television show is cancelled, it’s usually because it’s fallen off the Nielson radar. That sounds simple enough, but what do the Nielson TV ratings actually mean? Read on to learn more:

Nielson families. The Neilson Company rates television shows according to data it collects from the television viewing habits of households that agree to use a Nielson box. These households are generally referred to as “Neilson families.” It’s possible that you’ve never met a Nielson family, or even heard of one in your neighborhood, as they comprised only a relatively small segment of the population. Through scientific and mathematical deduction, the Nielson company is able to derive large conclusions about geographic and demographic television habits based on findings from their small sample groups.

How to interpret program ratings. Simply put, a program rating of 20 means that 20 percent of American households are tuned in to that program when it airs. However, that doesn’t mean that all twenty percent of those households are actually watching television at that time, and it also doesn’t account for the fact that some households are comprised of two people, while others are comprised of six people. Conversely, that rating does not imply that the other 80 percent of the population’s households are watching television (in effect choosing another program over the one in question), as those people may be doing anything but watching television. For this reason, all Nielson ratings must be viewed in light of one another, and within a framework.

The program share. For a more accurate view of the number of people (or what portion of the population) that is likely to be watching a program, the program’s share must be taken into consideration. The share number accounts for the ratings inaccuracies detailed above, and will always be higher than the ratings number.

Demographics. In order to develop an even more accurate and detailed understanding of program ratings, it is necessary to explore the demographics compiled in Nielson reports. This is an organized break-down of factors like family/household size, family member age groups, and gender divisions.

As you can see, there is no simple way to approach the analysis of Nielson television ratings. All of the factors listed here must be assessed both separately and together in order to gain an accurate perspective of what a program’s Nielson rating really means.