The way we watch TV has changed dramatically in the last decade. With Netflix, Hulu, network streaming apps, and on-demand options, more audiences participate in time-shifted viewing than ever before. Many opportunities come with time-shifting audiences, but it also presents a considerable problem for measuring and understanding those audiences. Nielsen ratings have long been the standard for evaluated viewership numbers, but as technology changes, Nielsen has to change with it.
When we talk about ratings, we often throw around terms like “live ratings” and “live-plus-seven.” The first is self-explanatory, representing the number of people who tuned in during a live broadcast. Live-plus-seven is an extended metric that tracks viewership over the seven days following the broadcast.
The Hollywood Reporter reports that Nielsens making some changes to its measurement practices after expanding to include measurements up to 35 days after the broadcast. Next fall, we just might be using Live-plus-35 ratings to better understand audience and a show’s popularity.
THR points out that because audiences are so likely to time-shift their viewing, these extended numbers can have a pretty sizable impact on overall ratings – particularly for scripted shows.
“The extra draw between weeks two and five is not minor for many scripted series. Grey’s Anatomy, again ABC’s highest-rated drama in its 12th season, saw its live-plus-7 average in the key demographic drop 3 percent from the previous season. But the 35-day trail of VOD (with online streams) adds another 1.5 rating points among 18-to-49, making for a 6 percent improvement from the show’s 11th season. (Of note: 1.5 is the complete live-plus-7-day rating for Thursday neighbor and surprise renewal The Catch.)”
Something like live-plus-35 will certainly give networks a better idea of the “big picture” as it pertains to ratings in a time-shifting world. But Nielsen still has a long way to go, particularly when it comes to multi-platform viewing — things like network streaming apps and Hulu can have a big impact on what viewership actually looks like, but THR reports that the multi-platform portion of Nielsen’s strategy is still under construction.
Even with the improvements, though, Nielsen remains a flawed system that’s way behind when it comes to technology. The biggest problem is that it doesn’t really give us an accurate idea of the actual viewership and popularity of a show. Nielsen measurements rely on “people meters” (boxes that track viewing activity on television sets) and paper diaries to track what people watch in randomly selected households across the U.S. With the information on viewing collected from the random sample of households, Nielsen determines the share of viewers to come up with a rating. It’s convoluted and bizarre and has a lot more to do with commercials than you might think.
As Splitsider notes, most of us don’t know any “Nielsen families” — the highly influential random sample of viewers. They all but control the fates of our favorite shows, but we have little to no clue who they are. In a world where there are over 400 scripted series on television and taste is so subjective, relying on random sample to decide what affects the topography of our cultural landscape is at best stupid and at worst reckless and deeply damaging. And yet, Nielsen’s the biggest name when it comes to ratings, so their data still matters.
A live-plus-35 metric will almost certainly improve our insight into ratings, but it doesn’t fully solve the problem of Nielsen ratings. They remain an incomplete measure of a show’s actual viewership and popularity, and extending measurements for months or years past the original broadcast is hardly changes a system that relies on random samples to determine which shows have the greatest impact on popular culture.