What’s this about ratings? A look at the metrics that power the TV industry

When I first began to develop an interest in TV, one of the first things I did was learn as much as I could about ratings. I’m not talking about critical ratings, but viewership and demographics. I sought to learn how TV shows turned a profit and what metric was used to quantify their success. I discovered the answer was far from simple. Nonetheless, I’m going to try and simplify it for you today. Hopefully, after reading this post you’ll understand a little bit more about how TV works.

The Basics

In the broadest terms, TV shows are measured based on two key metrics. Those metrics are viewership and the Adults 18-49 (written as A18-49) rating. Let me take a moment to explain those two units of measurement.

Viewership is a number, usually rounded to the millions, that indicates how many people watched a particular airing of a show. For example, the March 30, 2017, episode of ABC’s Scandal was watched by 6.57 million viewers (source: TVbythenumbers). Given the sheer number of shows on TV, it goes without saying that viewership varies wildly across various shows and networks. On one hand, you have CBS’ NCIS which regularly reaches 15 million viewers an episode and is the most viewed drama on TV. On the other, you have The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (a delightful show that you should totally watch) that averages somewhere around 500k viewers an episode.

The second key metric is TV is the Adults 18-49 rating (also called “the demo”). This number gives a representation of the total percentage of adults between the ages of 18 and 49 who watch a given program at a given time. For example, the season five premiere of AMC’s The Walking Dead received an 8.7 A18-49 rating. That means that 8.7 percent of adults 18-49 watching TV at that time were watching that episode. For comparison, the second season premiere of the aforementioned Crazy Ex-Girlfriend received a 0.2 A18-49. A rating that is absolutely dwarfed by The Walking Dead.

The demo is very important to advertisers and how a show performs in the demo usually determines if it lives or dies. So while viewership can be important, the raw number of people watching a show is rarely all that important. Networks use the demo ratings to set ad rates. The higher the rating, the higher the ad rates. There is a reason Superbowl ads cost as much as they do, Superbowl XLIX received a 49.7 rating.

So what about DVR?

Ah, I’m glad you asked. When DVR came onto the scene a huge monkey wrench was thrown into TV measurement.

The purpose of the demo is to set ad rates, but what if people were skipping over those ads? Suddenly TV wasn’t the linear business that it had been. 20 years ago, if someone buys an ad to air during the newest episode of ER, you could be sure (relatively speaking) that the show’s audience was going to see that ad. But with the advent of DVR and the viewing audience becoming very fractured, that

DVR viewership (referred to as “time-shifted viewing”) is calculated in the following ways: Live+Same Day (L+SD), Live +3 Days (L+3) and Live + 7 Days (L+7) (source: Medium). Typically, ad packages are bought based the number of people who view an ad break for three days after an airing (source: Variety). Hence why DVR viewership is measured based on that time frame, networks are trying to show advertisers the value in their shows.

For example, the season 3 finale of The CW’s The Flash was watched by 3.039 million viewers and received a 1.1 in Adults 18-49 in its L+SD rating. When L+7 numbers are factored in, the viewership grew to 4.855 million and the A18-49 grew to a 1.9, representing a growth of 60% and 73% respectively. Now that viewership isn’t as linear as it once was, these numbers help provide networks with a better idea of exactly how many people are watching their shows and when they do it (source: TVbythenumbers).

The introduction of the DVR and On-Demand fundamentally changed how viewers consume TV. It began to shift the importance away from live airings to viewers choosing how and when they watch their shows. Part of what brought on this shift in viewing habits are streaming services like Netflix.

“Is it on Netflix?”

With the rise of streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, viewing habits continued to evolve to their current state. More and more vast back catalogs of shows are being added to these platforms for to people to watch or rediscover at their leisure. So how do these platforms get their value?

Simply put, from subscribers. All of the major streaming platforms famously do not release viewership date for their shows. Other third party outlets claim to be able to measure how many people watch shows on these platforms but the data they report have never been verified. Services like Netflix care about how many people are paying them each month to use their service. To them, it doesn’t matter what you watch as long as you’re watching something.

This presents a bit of problem in terms of quantifying a “success.” For example, Amazon reported that the second season of its original drama The Man in the High Castle, received the most viewers over its debut weekend of any previous Amazon original. The problem is, we have no concrete data to back that claim up. You just have to take it as is. With no real context as to how other shows on Amazon perform, this claim is functionally meaningless.

This is not intended to be a criticism of any one show in particular. I happen to be a fan of High Castle and many other streaming shows. However, it would be beneficial to understand how these services define their successes and failures. Why does one show survive and another gets canceled? On a network, you can usually point to the ratings to determine that. These streaming platforms don’t follow that same logic. Thus it has become even harder to quantify what a “success” is when it comes to a streaming show.

So what does it all mean?

In short, TV viewership is quantified and qualified in many different ways today. Given that TV viewing is no longer linear and audiences are more fractured than ever before, the ways in which those audiences are measured had to change. It is no longer a simple as the data from one airing of an episode. The picture is much more complex.

We’ve reached a point in TV where almost any show with a modicum of a loyal following can survive. Networks and outlets are trying to appeal to whatever niche they can find. We live in an age of “Peak TV,” where over 400 scripted shows can exist at the same time. Some people wonder if it’s only a matter of time before the bubble bursts. That this glut of content and speed of growth cannot be maintained. Perhaps it cannot, but for now, it appears to be working.


I hope this post has added to your understanding of how TV ratings work. If you have any questions, feel free to ask them in the comments section below!

 

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