December 20, 2014

The Nielsen Problem: Understanding the Ratings and How We Can Beat Them

If you’re an avid TV watcher, then you’re probably familiar with the Nielsen ratings.  Every show lives, dies or thrives based on these ratings, which are determined by Nielsen Media Research.  Plenty of promising shows have been abruptly cancelled due to a lack of viewers, some of which may have been favorites of yours.  Though most of us know about Nielsen, many of us (including myself until writing this article) don’t exactly know how it works.  So here’s a bit of the basics about the ratings powerhouse: how it works, how the system could improve, and how you could help defy the Nielsen death sentence.

Decoding Nielsen: How the System Works

The first part of understanding how the Nielsen ratings work is knowing how they collect their viewer data.  If you have time,  check out this really interesting interview with a real “Nielsen family.”  Here’s a quick summary of the how Nielsen collects the data:

Photo of a Nielsen box, which monitors what your household is watching on TV

1. Nielsen approaches a family about becoming a “Nielsen Family” for a certain period of time.

2. If the family is interested, Nielsen asks a few qualifying questions and conducts a general survey about the family

3. If the family qualifies, Nielsen installs monitoring boxes on all the cable boxes / DVRs in the house (and sometimes non-cable-connected DVD players as well).

4. After the installation is complete, each family member must check in every time they start watching TV, as well as re-check-in every 45 minutes they continue to watch.

5. If the family purchases any new equipment (i.e. TVs, DVD players, etc), Nielsen comes back to the home to install a recording device to it.

6. The family is paid $50 every six months.  Nielsen usually keeps a family hooked up for 2 or 3 years at the most.

If you have any other questions about the process, check out the article I linked above.

So how does Nielsen translate the data it receives from it’s families into viewership and ratings information?  Nielsen utilizes a technique called statistical sampling, which means that they create a sample audience and then use the data created in that sample audience to estimate what the entire population is watching.  For a more thorough explanation of how Nielsen uses this technique, check out this informative HowStuffWorks page.

Below is a screen cap (taken from TVByTheNumbers) that shows some Nielsen ratings for this past Saturday, October 22nd, 2011.  For further help in decoding the numbers and decyphering that chart, use this step by step walkthrough (skip to step 3).


Nielsen’s Flaws

Though Nielsen’s numbers are utilized and scrutinized by every television network in America, the information that the company generates are really only estimates.  Sure, Nielsen uses complex and supposedly accurate processes to calculate their numbers, but we can never be sure that they are 100% accurate.  The only way to actually track what the whole country is watching would be to track every single American citizen’s viewing habits, which Nielsen doesn’t have the time, money, or manpower to do.

But in this day and age, there could be a solution that would circumvent Nielsen or any other ratings projections.  The answers to the Nielsen problem are just beginning to take shape, but there is hope that in time, there may be a way to know exactly what people are really watching.  No more speculations or estimates.  For a glimpse at a Nielsen-less future, it’s worth taking a look at how one show has already harnessed the power of the internet.

Twitter and “WeGiveAChuck”

In time, television networks may turn away from the Nielsen ratings and instead look at buzz being generated through social networks.  For at least one show, this practice has already taken place and helped save a beloved show from getting the axe – that is, for just one more season.

I’m talking about one of my personal favorites, Chuck.  The show is returning for it’s fifth and final season starting this upcoming Friday, October 28th on NBC.  But before fans were given one last season to say fairwell to their favorite Nerd Herd-er, Chuck was on the bubble and in serious jeopardy of being cancelled.  Sadly, this excellent show is no newcomer to the struggle for another season, as Entertainment Weekly called it, “The perpetual bubbliest of the broadcast bubble shows.”  Last spring was no different, as the conclusion of season four meant a new battle for one more year of Chuck.

When the show returned from its break in January, the fan movement began to build, slowly but steadily.  It began with the creation of a website called, where fans from around the world could join together and brainstorm new ways to reach out to NBC and persuade them to grant Chuck one final season.  We Give A Chuck was the beginning of a firestorm of various campaigns that simply could not be ignored.  Two of the most successful campaigns were (click the headers for additional info):


A pre-designed postcard that WeGiveAChuck provided to fans

Chuck vs. the Postcard

Each week, We Give A Chuck provided fans with the addresses of businesses who advertised either through product placement or ad spots during commercial breaks.  Armed with these addresses, thousands of fans would bombard the businesses with postcards from wherever they lived.  Each postcard would thank the companies for supporting Chuck, tell them that the viewer had seen their product on the show, let them know that the viewer had supported their company because of their Chuck support, and ask them to tell NBC that they would continue to support Chuck if the network granted the show a fifth season.


Joshua Gomez, who plays lovable buddy Morgan on “Chuck”, tweets his support

For this campaign, fans took to Twitter.  While watching Chuck, fans would tweet the Twitter accounts of companies who advertised on the show, telling them that they had seen their product or ad.  These tweets would conclude with the hashtag #NotANielsenFamily.  This campaign was an effort to circumvent the flawed Nielsen system and let advertisers know that, despite not being counted by Nielsen, viewers were in fact taking notice of their products while watching Chuck.


Seeing how much effort the die-hard fans of Chuck put into their push for one more season, it’s no wonder NBC finally granted their wish.  Just as season four came to a close on May 16th, it was announced that the show would have a final half-season (just 13 episodes) to give fans a proper goodbye.  The show’s creator, Josh Schwartz (who also created The O.C, Gossip Girl, and the new Hart of Dixie), was so struck by fans’ dedication to the show that he tweeted, “The passion of CHUCK fans has been heard again… We are all truly lucky to have the greatest fan base on TV.  Thank you.”  Using a website, Twitter, and good-old-fashioned snail mail, this show’s die-hard fans were able to rescue it from the brink of cancellation.  And what’s more, they did it without any help from Nielsen and it’s ratings system.

For additional recap of Chuck fans’ incredible efforts, check out this “Looking back…” page on

What’s Next: Stickers for All

So Chuck’s faithful viewers demonstrated that people who aren’t Nielsen families can still have their voices heard and even rescue shows from extinction.  But there’s still one problem that remains.  The outcry from Chuck fans made it clear that tons of people were actually watching the show, but there was no way of putting an actual number on that mass of viewers.  Were there 8,000 loyal viewers leading the charge, or 800,000?  Nobody really knows. But a new social networking website has arrived that could be a game changer.

Some of you may already be aware of and/or using the site GetGlue.  For those of you who haven’t heard of GetGlue, it’s simple:  registered users (it’s free to sign up) “check-in” to their favorite shows as they watch them.  As an incentive to check-in, GetGlue offers users collectible stickers that can be earned through check-ins, some of which give them discounts on merchandise or even in-store.  Some stickers can be earned simply by checking into a show once, while other stickers can only be earned by checking in right when the show airs or by checking in multiptle times.  After a certain amount of stickers are earned, a user can provide their address and GetGlue actually mails out physical copies of the stickers that he or she has earned, free of charge.

A Sample of some of the thousands of GetGlue stickers

Every time a new episode of a show airs, GetGlue keeps track of how many users are checking in and ranks the night’s top shows.  Networks and advertisers can see how many people are watching shows and seeing ads, and the users who are checking in can earn exclusive stickers for doing so.  Everybody wins.

Of course there are still flaws in this system, which poke holes in the theory that GetGlue could render the Nielsen ratings useless.  First off, there aren’t nearly enough people checking in – yet.  Even though GetGlue was launched in October of 2009, it’s only recently started to catch on.  According to this New York Enterprise Report published October 2nd, 2011, GetGlue has 1.5 million users and will soon reach the 10 million check-ins-per-month milestone.  AMC’s The Walking Dead recently crashed the GetGlue site when fans rushed to check-in during the show’s season two premiere.  So far, just shy of 265,000 people have checked into the show – a number that is a far cry from Nielsen’s projected 11 million viewers for the October 16th premiere of the show’s second season.  Still, with time the difference could eventually begin to even out.

Another problem with relying on GetGlue check-ins is that, in a sense, users can cheat.  There’s nothing to verify that you are actually sitting in front of your TV watching Modern Family when you check in – you could be checking in on GetGlue’s mobile app while you’re actually at a party or visiting your grandparents.  In comparison, Nielsen families must actively be checking into the boxes connected to their TVs, making that data far more reliable.

Though though there are issues with both the Nielsen ratings and relying on social networking sites like GetGlue, there seems to be more promise in viewers taking to the internet.  If more people begin to check-in to their favorite shows and GetGlue tweaks a few things, more accurate viewership data could result.  Perhaps such a change could lead to fewer shows being axed despite a loyal fanbase. The revival of Chuck has taught us that with enough will-power, dedicated fans can actually fight unfavorable Nielsen ratings and win.

Time will tell if the Nielsen ratings can be shaken by the internet and social networks.  For now though, you can do your part – start checking in and making some noise online about your favorite shows.  Start the revolution!



About Bill Peloquin

Bell Peloquin is a Blast staff writer. He writes the Film and Television Buzz blog.