Let’s Kvetch About the Ratings! By Rachel N.

The end of summer draws upon us, bringing with it the return of the fall season. Once again we’ll swear television has reached new highs or new lows. We’ll applaud the eagerly anticipated debuts and returns, be disappointed by the filler, and look on with disbelief at the zombies that no one has yet put down.

We’ll speculate, eviscerate, and gossip, thus continuing the tradition of fall television chatter. And there’s no chatter more traditional than complaining about the Nielsen ratings. It’s practically time-honored. We’ve all done it. If there are three villains in the minds of viewers and fans, the Nielsens have got to be in the top two or three, right behind network execs and about equal with those-morons-who-watch-crap-instead-of-good-television.

We’ve all seen it enough to know it by heart. Recite with me, now:

  • Their methodology is suspect or completely bogus

  • Too much emphasis is put on them

  • There are infinitely better ways to track viewer numbers

And you know as well as I do that each and every one of these criticisms tend to be prefaced with, “any idiot can see….”. And you know, they’re convincing arguments; it often does seem obvious. It really doesn’t matter, though. Criticisms of the ratings are nothing new; nearly 20 years ago, NOVA suggested that network executives would have better luck going with their gut than trying to base decisions of ratings…and it wasn’t a particularly novel conclusion.

Even if the Nielsen’s have been unjustly maligned, the existence of these doubts would presumably lead networks and advertisers to look for alternatives, but that’s not exactly happened. So the question before us is not whether the Nielsen ratings system should be scrapped, but why it hasn’t been.

The main players in this farce are the networks, the advertisers, and of course, Nielsen Media Research (NMR).

The networks want to sell advertising spots to their advertisers. The advertisers want to know that they are getting their money’s worth and that their products are being hawked to those who might actually buy them. NMR wants to stay in business and presumably keep the first two reliant on them alone for those all important numbers. Whenever NMR tries to change things up, the networks are unhappy when their cash-cows are suddenly undermined. Whenever the networks challenge the system, as they are now, NMR accuses them of trying to create a cabal to rig the ratings. The result: nothing ever really changes.

But call me cynical, but I’m not sure we should really want them to. One of the more recent criticisms of NMR centers around their decision to not weigh online viewing (either on PCs or mobile devices) in their calculations, nor to update how they weigh DVR recordings. That does seem ridiculously stupid. But it should also make us rethink the whole proposition. Perfect numbers are no longer simply advertisers’ wet dreams; it’s becoming more and more technologically feasible that everything a viewer watches might be logged and added into a great stew of statistics. The advertisers would be thrilled. At this point, privacy concerns may seem like closing the barn door long after the horses are gone, but it’s still creepy.

Besides, I’m not quite ready to give up the kvetching about the ratings. They make far better villains than the morons next door, as we all have our guilty pleasures and can’t exactly point fingers. Murky ratings give fans something to speculate over and fight against. In a world with perfect ratings, there’d be little room for quirky fan campaigns to save their favorite shows.

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