Why Nielsen Ratings Are Flawed: Explained

TV shows live and die by the Nielsen ratings–every season, brilliant yet underrated shows go off air because they couldn’t garner a big enough Nielsen audience. Friday Night Lights, my all time favorite show, was perennially in danger of cancellation due to its abysmal Nielsen ratings. The problem with this, of course, is that the accuracy of the Nielsen are continually questioned.


So what, exactly, are the Nielsen ratings? Nielsen is an American company that monitors American television viewing habits. Nielsen does this by selecting approximately American 20,000 households and monitoring their viewing habits. Individuals in the households either self-report their viewing habits through a small diary, or Nielsen installs a ratings box in their home. Whenever a member of the household watches TV, the individual pushes his own button on the box for the data. With the box method, Nielsen knows precisely how long individuals watched one show before switching to another, how many commercials they watched, and so on.

Nielsen then collects the data from their 20,000 households to make statistical predictions about how many total households watch certain shows. They report the data in one of two days. One Nielsen data rating point means that your show garnered 1% of the American television owning public. Your Nielsen ratings share percentage means that your show received that percentage of viewership among the people actually watching TV at the exact time of your show’s viewing.

The problem with the ratings, of course, is that shows are often cancelled because other shows beat them by .01 percent. But given the small number of actual Nielsen households, this means that some shows win and some shows lose that are both within the statistical margin of error. Moreover, Nielsen can’t possibly accurately calculate how many total Americans are watching certain shows because its sample size is too small, and the families who agree to record don’t accurately represent the normal American TV viewing public. Even crazier is the fact that Nielsen can’t record the millions of individuals who watch TV on Netflix, Hulu, on-demand, or online, thus greatly skewing its statistics.

So why does Nielsen not fix the problem and include a larger sample size? I wish I knew–I couldn’t find the answer anywhere. The only prediction I can possibly make is that Nielsen either (or perhaps both) doesn’t want to pay more families to participate, or can’t find more families willing to participate. Does anybody know the answer? Or know a Nielsen household?

*Incidentally, up until a few years ago I had no idea that everything we watched on TV wasn’t recorded. I never realized that when I refused to watch something “out of principal,” so that the show didn’t have a higher rating, my boycott, in no way, affected the ratings.


3 thoughts on “Why Nielsen Ratings Are Flawed: Explained

  1. thanks for “attempting” to resolve the nielsen kerfuffle, lol. i think that the question of their validity is in even more question than before; when the small sample size was the primary issue. now, we have the added confusion of people (many, perhaps most) of whom either “time switch” with their dvr or watch television through alternate channels (get the pun) like netflix, amazon prime, hulu, etc.

  2. You are incorrect. Neilson does not use a sampling of 20,000 . I have read their own literature. They sample with ONLY 5,000 households. Anyway I agree with you. There is NO WAY that they can have a truely accurate read on demographics with that type sampling.

    I also agree that they cancel some really good shows. It always bothers me.

    Liberal households dominate the sampling . So shit shows like what they have on NBC TBS CNN and so on get higher scoring.

    With nearly every house in america now needs a digital converter. I would be fine if they polled from my converter box at the end of each day. So maybe it’s time to go to something more like that. Take a million or a 5 million household sampling.

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