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ArchivedStickied postModerator of r/TelevisionRatings

What exactly are we talking about when we talk about TV ratings?

At the most basic level, it’s the number of people watching any given show on television. But the way ratings are calculated is much more complex. Demographics, overnight ratings, delayed viewing, broadcast vs. cable, it’s a lot to take in.

The guide below, which will be updated over time, will attempt to paint a clearer picture of what we mean by all of this, describing terminology and how ratings work. If you have comments, questions, or concerns, this is where to queue them up, and we’ll do our best to address them and reflect them in the guide. I myself am only an amateur follower of ratings, so if I get something wrong, or of something needs to be clarified, don’t hesitate to do so in the comments as well.

WHAT IS NIELSEN

One of the words you’ll see and hear the most on this sub is “Nielsen”, and it’s the basis for most of our discussions. The Nielsen Company is a marketing & researching organization hired by major broadcast and cable networks, as well as other interested parties, in order to track the viewing habits of TV viewers in the United States (as well as several other countries, although this sub will mostly discuss US ratings), which in turn helps the network determine the profitability and viability of their shows, i.e. how well the ads are doing on live broadcasts, how many people are delaying watching their shows and watching on DVR or streaming, etc.

Nielsen’s research is done largely through set-top boxes that track what people are watching, as well as, to a lesser extent, journals that people manually fill out. The households that become “Nielsen Familes” are determined via random sampling of the population based on demographics (age, gender, income, ethnicity, location, etc). The number of homes represented in their research varies depending on their methods, and constantly grows based on their resources and the population.

WHAT VIEWERSHIP DATA IS FOR

An important thing to keep in mind about Nielsen and ratings in general, is that all of this research is done with the specific goal of measuring a show’s profitability. TV is a business, and networks are in it to make money. While a certain rating or amount of viewers may seem impressive to you or I, there are over 115 million households with TVs in the US, and the nature of live broadcast TV, with set primetime programming hours, means that the main broadcast networks need to cater to as many people at all times. The main source of revenue for the networks is advertising, so the 5 million people watching any given show aren’t as important to them as the handful of advertisers giving them millions to reach those 5 million people. Ratings are important to viewers because it defines what shows stand the best chance of staying on the air, but inherently, this data isn’t for us. It’s just interesting to talk about!

WHAT DO RATINGS NUMBERS MEAN?

The most popular ratings figures you’ll see discussed on this sub are the 18-49 overnight ratings. What does that mean? 18-49 in the age range which is most coveted by advertisers, as they are the group most likely to spend money, so it’s the most reported. “Overnight” means the first numbers reported the morning after a show airs, which are subject to adjustments later in the day.

A ratings point itself represents 1% of all households in the united states. So if we were to assume 115 million households, a 1.0 rating is 1.15 million homes tuning in. The number itself, especially when account for demographics, is more complicated than that, but let’s keep it that way for simplicity.

Also reported in overnights and final ratings are overall number of viewers.

WHAT IS A GOOD RATING?

It depends. A long time ago, before live TV audiences started eroding with the rise of the internet, and the rising cost of cable with so many different networks producing content, the number was much higher. Prolific TV writer Ken Levine said a few years ago (link below this post) that the average rating these days is smaller than the margin of error some of the highest-viewed shows back in the 80s and 90s would get. Then the internet came along, and the number started dropping. These days, for most broadcast networks, here’s a pretty good general guide for the current TV landscape:

0.0 to 1.4 – For Fox, NBC, ABC and CBS, this is cancellation territory. Most shows with ratings under 1 won’t survive. For the CW, the average for most shows falls into this range. For example, Hannibal never surpassed this range. Most new shows that get cancelled are here too. On the CW, its top shows will hit low 1s (like Supernatural, Arrow, The Flash) but that network accepts a lower threshold for success as they're not that popular.

1.5 to 1.9 – Your show is at risk of getting cancelled, but could survive. Fox's sitcoms (Last Man on Earth, Brooklyn-99, New Girl) usually fall in this range, as do a lot of network dramas like Agents of SHIELD, Law & Order: SVU, and many of CBS's shows like Person of Interest and Elementary, which are considered successful because they also have a large amount of overall viewers.

2.0 to 2.9 –For most broadcast dramas and sitcoms, getting ratings in this range is usually really good, and should guarantee renewal. Examples: The first season of The Blacklist, Gotham, later seasons of NCIS.

3.0 to 3.9 – Few dramas and sitcoms find themselves in this range anymore, but the top tier of reality TV will be here, like The Voice. Scandal usually pulls in ratings in the low 3s as well.

4.0 and higher – The very top scripted TV will be here. Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory, Empire are among the shows that are here. Many live sporting events and special events like award shows will also garner big ratings.

That’s all for now! Click the links below for further reading material:

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I'm working on a project, and I'm in need of cable ratings for a season of a show that aired in 2012 on cable. I've checked through most of the existing sites (e.g. TV by the Numbers), but I can't find the show listed (I don't think it scored high enough to make the top 100 lists). I don't know if this is the right place to post, but I was wondering if anyone here had some suggestions as to how I can track down this information. Thanks!

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