Last month, I provided a primer on pilot season! This month I’m explaining how ratings work, how broadcast networks decide the fate of their shows, and why your views probably don’t count towards the ratings.
At the end of the day, it’s all about $$$$.
First, there’s Nielsen. A “global information and measurement company,” they provide research data about what people watch, listen, and buy. They provide advertisers and networks the ratings, which are the single most important factor in deciding renewals and cancellations. Essentially advertisers buy time to air their ads from networks. The product is viewers’ time and attention sold to the advertisers who will pay more for shows with better ratings.
Nielsen recruits people to become part of their panels, representative of the population of people with TVs. Nielsen, measures 210 Designated Market Areas in four ways. This link breaks down the four systems. From this data, Nielsen is able to tell advertisers and networks how many people watched a specific show (and thus ads) each night (the rating).
Important Ratings Terms
Rating: The proportion of a specific demographic watching a particular show. If a show gets a 2.0, then 2% of that demographic watched the show.
Demo: The particular audience a network is targeting and advertisers want to buy. (Blame ABC for the dependence on the 18-49.)
Live+Same Day: The most common data type (and what we usually see reported). It measures live viewing of a program or playback of a DVR recording on the same day it aired.
C3 Rating: A commercial rating (and what advertisers pay attention to) for live viewing and DVR playback within three days of the show airing. C3 rating accounts for minute-by-minute measurement so advertisers know whether a viewer saw an advertisement even via DVR.
There are also Live+3 and Live+7 (measures playback within 3 days and within a week of recording) and C7 (commercial rating within 7 days). However, for show success, these aren’t big factors.
Sweeps: A month long period in late Oct-Nov, Feb- March, April-May, and June- July. Nielsen used to send out one week paper diaries to new homes to measure viewing information for local advertising purposes. They’ve recently moved to all digital measuring. Sweeps (called so because Nielsen used to “sweep” from region to region to collect the diaries) don’t affect national ads. But local advertisers decide what to pay based on these periods. So writers have incentive to stuff the episodes with stunt casting, plot twists, and major Drama.
By the way, network brass (the executives) usually have final say on any character deaths, rebirth, pregnancy, time jumps, and otherwise huge events. Of course the show-runners and writers are the ones who almost always pitch these events.
The following is what I have learned after years of following the TVGrimReaper (completely unbiased predictor of show’s futures) and reading about ratings. If you want one easy place for predictions, he’s the guy to follow. (Of his 8 years predicting, he’s been correct 90%+ of the time except for his first year, and 2016-2017!)
Networks decide what to renew based on their own show list. Generally, shows with ratings 15-20% of the networks scripted average rating are likely renewed, above the average are renewed, and shows with ratings below are closer to cancellation.
However, there are two other helpful indicators of renewal. Syndication status is the first. Syndication is when a network sells a show to another network to air reruns. Think ION, TBS, USA, and TNT airing reruns of Criminal Minds, Seinfield, SVU, and Castle. In the past shows had to reach anywhere from 80 to 100 episodes for a show to reach syndication. In recent years that’s changed, but shows with more than two seasons have incentive to make more episodes.
The second major indicator is who produces the show. As I mentioned last year in my Upfronts roundup, networks have largely started ordering to series shows produced by their in-house studio. Those shows have an advantage over shows produced by a third party, however; there are exceptions to this rule.
Though all our favorite TV reporting websites (and press releases from networks) tout total audience numbers (or Live + 7) or gush how one show did better than another from a different network, neither of those actually matter. Advertisers don’t care about the total audience outside of the 18-49 demo because of purchasing power, and networks don’t influence each other in renewals and cancellations. Saying X from ABC won over Y on CBS is just for PR purposes.
Key Network Trends
CW, CBS, and NBC have trends that make predictions for the Reaper easier (and help with my love for TV stats.)
The CW cancels below rated average rated shows after they reach 70 episodes (since 2011 when Mark Pedowitz became president.) The exceptions to this are The Originals, which finishes this year and The Carrie Diaries, which only got to 26 episodes. (As of the 2017-2018 season this rule no longer applies as JTV was renewed.)
CBS Studios shows that make it to a 6th season (if renewed in season 1) and 3rd season shows produced by a third party studio are usually not cancelled before a fourth season renewal. (Syndication rule.) (Scorpion was the first in recent memory to break this rule.)
Similarly, NBC usually renews third season shows produced by third party studios and renews shows owned by their own studio in season 3. (Syndication rule.)
Most of this is up in the air for shows that have started airing later in the spring season or almost entirely in the summer. But it always goes back to costs for the networks.
Of course, there are exceptions. Chuck, for example is one of the only times fans action got a renewal. Subway paid for the costs of the show through product placement. (Again, it’s about $$$$).
Then there’s Timeless whose cast and crew touted the fan outcry as the reason for their renewal (of only ten episodes). Nah. It’s because Sony (the producing studio) gave up some ownership of the show.
As a whole, assuming the overall ratings decrease doesn’t cause more weirdness, networks will continue to only care about the 18-49 demo. Advertisers don’t want to air to low-rated shows obviously.
Now I mentioned at the very start that your views probably don’t count and that’s not to be mean. You’ve probably seen a lot of “watch this show live so it’ll get renewed” chatter. Unless you’re a Nielsen home, your views truly don’t matter to advertisers and thus the networks. But this means you can watch your show without any bad feelings and let the networks do their thing. Maybe one day Nielsen will expand its system or advertisers will care about a larger demo.
Come back next month to read about PeakTV and the push for more media representation!