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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.


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.


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!


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.


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:


I finally got around to figuring everyone's final rating -- and weekly program, though that doesn't really matter. I'm going to do summer ratings in chunks, the first one will be at the start of July to cover the final week of The Opposition and Desus & Mero.

2017-18 Late Night Summary

11:35: Jimmy Fallon is still the champion in late night ratings, but its vulnerability continues to show. In weekly ratings, the series has dropped about 0.1 (low 0.6s to low 0.5s) from September through May, and the usual post-Thanksgiving surge and bump after the Olympics didn't have a last effect this season as ratings fall, even in L+7 – 0.7 to 0.65 during the spring. Stephen Colbert started the season like it could topple Fallon, climbing fast in L+7. It has since heavily cooled but still remains within striking distance of Fallon. It's same-day ratings have fallen, but L+7 ratings continue to be strong. The show climbed about 0.08 through the season. Its viewership chilled this spring but is still a strong 1.17 million viewers ahead of Fallon. Like Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel saw L+SD ratings drop throughout the season. And like Fallon, Kimmel remains relatively flat compared to where it began the season. For about a month after the Olympics, it was at Fallon's heels in viewership, but that diminished in late spring.

12:37: Seth Meyers has had a slight uptick compared to where the season began and didn’t have near the ups and downs like its lead-in Fallon. However, Meyers is hurting – though not as seriously – from of its weakened lead-in but its decline this spring is more inline with usual late night trends. James Corden, which has occasionally been challenging Meyers in viewership throughout the season, has seen its ratings tumble this spring but viewership still remains okay and within sight of Meyers'. Nightline finally leveled-off after a rough fall and has comfortably landed above Corden in ratings. The two remain neck and neck in viewership.

Late late night: In its 17th season, Carson Daly is consistently hitting series lows. It never reached a 0.2 in weekly ratings all through the latter half of the summer.

On cable, programs are down across the board except for one: Viceland's Desus & Mero, which closes up shop at the end of June. After a great summer, The Daily Show couldn’t retain the ratings and has struggled off and on throughout the season. Yet it remains pretty consistent, rarely placing outside the mid-0.2s. Newcomer The Opposition, which ends its brief run at the end of June, too, never caught on – half the time it didn’t retain half of its Daily Show lead-in. Conan has taken the biggest hit this season, often struggling to reach 0.2 more than once a week. Watch What Happens Live has taken a small hit this spring but is still one of the more reliable late night cable programs when it comes to ratings.

The Breakdown, Week 35 and 2017-18: Daily Programs

Program (Net) Rating (35) Viewership (35) 2017-181 2016-172 2015-162 2014-153
Jimmy Fallon (NBC) 0.52 (+0.02) 2.376 0.65; 2.674 0.81; 3.162 1.03; 3.74 1.14; 3.929
Stephen Colbert (CBS) 0.43 (+0.01) 2.729 0.59; 3.844 0.58; 3.215 0.65; 2.88 0.56; 3.0074
Jimmy Kimmel (ABC) 0.37 (+0.02) 1.933 0.47; 2.249 0.48; 2.199 0.55; 2.39 0.63; 2.696
Seth Meyers (NBC) 0.29 (+0.01) 1.327 0.38; 1.554 0.41; 1.557 0.47; 1.59 0.48; 1.519
James Corden (CBS) 0.21 (-0.02) 1.155 0.28; 1.380 0.31; 1.339 0.33; 1.27 0.34; 1.431
Nightline (ABC) 0.24 (+0.01) 1.222 0.30; 1.389 0.32; 1.440 0.36; 1.55 0.41; 1.685
Carson Daly (NBC) 0.16 (0) 0.741 0.23; 0.818 0.25; 0.830 0.25; 0.89 0.28; 0.827
The Daily Show (CC) 0.14 (r) - 0.25; 0.846 0.32; 0.895 0.31; 0.809 0.53; 1.2805
The Opposition (CC) 0.07 (r) - 0.12; 0.335 0.17; 0.3656 0.20; 0.5227 0.39; 0.9238
Conan (TBS) 0.13 (-0.02) 0.311 0.17; 0.403 0.25; 0.560 0.27; 0.609 0.37; 0.803
WWHL (Bravo) 0.13 (-0.01) 0.430 0.16; 0.490 0.18; 0.536 0.22; 0.601 ?
Desus & Mero (Viceland) 0.06 (0) 0.093 0.06; 0.107 (est.) 0.05; 0.098 (est.) - -
  1. for broadcast programs, averages are L+7 except for the two most recent weeks, which are L+SD; cable entries are L+SD
  2. from the first week of the season to the week prior to Memorial Day
  3. from the first week of the season to two weeks prior to Memorial Day for broadcast programs (the following week was unavailable); to the week prior to Memorial Day for cable programs
  4. rating for Late Show with David Letterman
  5. rating for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
  6. rating for @Midnight with Chris Hardwick
  7. rating for The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore
  8. rating for The Colbert Report (fall) and The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore (winter/spring)

The Breakdown, Week 35 and 2017-18: Weekly Programs

Program (Net) Rating (35) Viewership (35) 2017-182
Chris Gethard (truTV) 0.04 0.88 0.07; 0.148
Full Frontal (TBS) 0.31 0.880 0.35; 1.057
Graham Norton (BBCA) - - 0.04 (est.)
Greg Gutfeld (Fox News) 0.17 1.648 0.15; 1.544
Hart of the City (CC) - - 0.16
Jim Jefferies (CC) 0.15 0.353 0.19; 0.431
Last Week Tonight (HBO) - - 0.38; 1.162
The President Show (CC) - - 0.11;0.309
Real Time (HBO) - - 0.39;1.824
The Rundown (BET) - - 0.07; 0.212
Saturday Night Live (NBC) - - ~1.7; 9.43
This Is Not Happening (CC) - - 0.10; 0.219
  1. from previous new episode
  2. L+SD since the start of the traditional broadcast fall season
  3. L+7 for the season, according to NBC press release
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