What does it all mean? TV Ratings 101

August 2, 2013

MMA Payout had the opportunity to talk with Sean O’Neill, Vice President of Research at Spike TV to discuss the basics of ratings.  While many report on ratings all the time, it’s rare that they are ever explained.

Thus, we did a “Ratings 101” with Mr. O’Neill to go over the basics and explain what executives and advertisers look at when talking about ratings.  O’Neill has over 10 years of experience in television programming for Spike TV.

1.  How are ratings determined?

“Nielsen is the only player in the game.  What they do is that all the networks pay them a fee to determine the ratings,” explained O’Neill. “The ‘Nielsen Sample’ is a representative sample of the entire U.S.”

“There are ‘people meters’ attached to every TV in a Nielsen home.  Viewers check in when in the room and the box records what’s being shown on the screen and that information is sent back to Nielsen and it uses that to formulate the ratings.” These meters are in just under 20,000 homes. One of the most valuable demographics that executives and advertisers look at is the 18-49 demographic. For various reasons, most notably spending habits, this demo is most sought after.  There are 126.5 million adults in the 18-49 demo in U.S. TV households.  The Nielsen Sample has approximately 21,500 adults in the 18-49 demographic.

“The ‘people meter’ started in 1987.  It’s not the most ideal system but everyone agrees to use it as currency,” said O’Neill.

“Some have asked why not just have a cable box on the television and use that data,” stated O’Neill. “Tivos [as an example] can sell its data but don’t get demographic data.”  As a result, the information would not benefit advertisers or television executives that want to pinpoint target demographics.

According to O’Neill, the approximately 20,000 homes that utilize Nielsen are picked based on geography, economics and other demographic factors as they are designed to be representative of the nation as a whole.

2. Can you explain what is meant by a “share”?

“Think of it as a pie chart,” explained O’Neill.  “Say Spike was available in 100 homes.  And say 3 out of 100 homes tuned into a show. It would receive a 3 share.”

“While the primary “currency” is the rating, looking at the share is useful looking at performance of a show. [As an example], there are more people watching November through January than from July through August. The share measurement takes this into account.”

3. What are the different types of measurement?

“There are the overnight ratings.  Some call it the local rating,” O’Neill stated.  “It’s received the first thing in the morning and it’s based on the 50 biggest cities.”

“The national rating which comes out later in the afternoon after the program changes quite a bit.  It includes live viewership within the time period.”

Live same day rating includes any playback between the time the program aired and 3:00 am that night.”

For Live plus 3 day ratings (also known as DVR +3 or C3) you would have to wait four days to know the ratings.  O’Neill gave as an example, something that aired on Tuesday would not be known until Sunday morning.   The ratings would encompass all viewing that occurred from the time slot of the program up until 3:00 am 3 days after the showing.

The “C3 rating” is the metric that the industry transacts upon.  It is the metric that most advertising is bought and sold.  Advertisers see value to it and networks want to monetize it. It’s the belief that ads are being seen within those 3 days.

6.  Can you explain Adjustments and Overruns?

“Every channel has to submit program start and end times via interface on the web.  If things run long, the channel adjusts the proper end time and that is accounted for by Neilsen.”

7.  How do you measure online viewing?

“It’s a wild west,” O’Neill said of the quest to measure online viewing.  “There are a number of companies that measure online activity,” added O’Neill, “When it’s on your web site you can tell unique visitors, streams and measure social media mention.”

But the issue, like obtaining data from Tivo, is the inability to obtain demographics. This comes up when addressing online advertising.  There are pros and cons to online advertising as one can see from the lack of measurement tools.  Some advertisers believe it adds value while others do not.

O’Neill stated that being able to measure online viewing is “the Holy Grail of measurement”  “It’s a ways off.  Ideally you will have one number.”  O’Neill identified linear television, iPads and phones as the various platforms that the industry would like to harness to determine the number of people accessing the content at that time.  “The goal is to get that number.”

8.  How do you become a Nielsen family?

“Neilsen has a robust recruitment department.  They’ll look at the demographics of certain areas.  It will canvass and talk to you and get information and see if there’s something that fits.  There’s some small compensation.”

33 Responses to “What does it all mean? TV Ratings 101”

  1. aintitthetruth on August 2nd, 2013 6:58 AM

    How can we be sure no one is greasing the wheels at nielson to inflate ratings? Corruption is everywhere and its a shame nielsen is the only option and is taken as the the gospel. can you say monopoly?

  2. Sampson Simpson on August 2nd, 2013 9:11 AM

    It is so outdated

  3. Chris on August 2nd, 2013 9:29 AM

    Wow I actually agree with Sampson on something, probably the first and only time that will happen.

  4. Sampson Simpson on August 2nd, 2013 10:19 AM

    You menstruate Chris. You really do.

    I agree

  5. BrainSmasher on August 2nd, 2013 4:21 PM

    Weird that an entire industry is built on such a small sample. If there is only 21,500 people in their 18-49 demo being monitored. That would mean a 3.0 rating in that demo is only about 600 people. The same share of males in that age group would only be about 300 people.

    That brings up a lot of questions. How can such a small group of people represent all the demographics of race, age, sex and geography?

    Next, it would seem that if a program or network was able to locate a few hundred people in their demo and “entice” them. It could take a normally good rating and turn it into a smash hit bringing in many more millions in revenue.

    I always knew the system was flawed. But not this bad. I expected there to be hundreds of thousands that Neilson used. But with the size of the 18-49 being just over 20K. That means there is roughly 60,000 people even being monitored.

    I don’t understand why more people cant be monitored. With so much money in the industry riding on it. There should be at least 100,000-200,000 households. Not 20,000. There is almost more channels to choose from than people being monitored. lol

  6. aintitthetruth on August 2nd, 2013 4:48 PM

    When doing polls companies only need around 800 people for it to be accurate. 20k is plenty and very expensive. the real problem is everyone relies on one company to make huge decisions.

  7. BrainSmasher on August 2nd, 2013 5:18 PM

    That is stupid. Maybe 800 people will work for control group to survey about a product. But not to judge what 300+ million people are watching.

  8. aintitthetruth on August 2nd, 2013 5:26 PM

    And that’s just 20k households. Some households have over four people each.

  9. BrainSmasher on August 2nd, 2013 5:40 PM

    We are always hearing how the UFC gets high ratings in such and such city. That shows how much the popularity of a program can change from one region to another. With such a small group of Nielson boxes. There is no way they can be getting an accurate reading in each city. There are probably 25,000-30,000 “cities” in the US. So there isn’t even enough Nielson boxes to have one household per city.

    From my calculations the difference between UFC on Fox 4 and UFC on Fox 8 ratings was actually less than 20 people. And since each city isn’t accurately measured and different fighters and events appeal to people in different cities. We have no clue which event was watched by more people in this country.

  10. BrainSmasher on August 2nd, 2013 5:47 PM

    20,000 households out of 115,000,000. That means every nielson household represents 5,350 households. Every Nielson person represents 14,450 people.

  11. aintitthetruth on August 2nd, 2013 5:51 PM

    You are only questioning it because ufc has had poor ratings recently. you would swear up and down neilsen is accurate if the opppsite were true; you shill.

  12. BrainSmasher on August 2nd, 2013 6:51 PM

    Their ratings were exactly the same as they were last year. They aren’t down at all Ass Clown! If anything the UFC ratings are up.

  13. Sampson Simpson on August 2nd, 2013 7:01 PM

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! The ratings are UP?


  14. BrainSmasher on August 2nd, 2013 7:06 PM

    After all if I was bias I would be supporting the ratings. After all the UFC is kicking Bellators ass and Bellator is about to have their plug pulled. Arent they your great white hope? Surely I would support the company that says this promotions is a joke and the US is turning against them. But I am not. Everyone does play by the same rules when it comes to ratings so there is something to be said for that. But it is a very bad system.

    To prove how bad it is. It is pretty simple. Have you ever had a Neilson box? Have you ever known anyone who has one? We either. I have never known or known anyone who has known anyone who has had one. In fact at one tim ei started to think they were a hoax. Until after 2 years of working at the postal service I saw a letter with their name on it. It is amazing how few people they use. Their website says they use 45,000 people. That is in sanely small.

    They do have written journals but I think those are useless. They sent me one 2 years ago and wanted everyone in my household to write down everything we watch more than 15 minutes. We were supposed to do it for weeks or a month, cant remember. I started it for a few days and realized how useless it was since ratings are not reported that far out and said to Hell with it. They did sent like $10 with it. Maybe this was their way of screening who gets a box down the road. But it was a big hassle to remember what everyone in the house was watching at all hours of the day.

  15. aintitthetruth on August 2nd, 2013 7:53 PM

    No one was talking about bellator. i was talking about the ufc, and its recent fox bellyflop. for statistical purposes 20 thousand households is enough. there should simply be more than one company doing tests.

    you are sad. you watch so much tv that you can’t even remember what you watch in a day? How about reading a book, or getting some sunlight? low vitamin d leads to depression, little man!

  16. BrainSmasher on August 2nd, 2013 8:16 PM

    I don’t watch a lot of TV lame ass. I am to busy to know if, when, or what everyone else in the home is watching. I only watch MMA and Seinfeld reruns. The 2 days I kept the journal I had to ask everyone what they watched at the end of the day. If they remembered what they didn’t know the time. So I had to go look up every show and find out the time it aired. It was a pain in the ass and I stopped filling it out and never sent it in.

  17. BrainSmasher on August 2nd, 2013 8:30 PM

    BTW, the UFC on Fox ratings are much higher this year. So they are not down you are both just morons.

    First Fox event last year. 4.6
    First event this year 4.2

    Second event last year 2.4
    Second event this year 3.7

    Third event last year 2.4
    Third event this year 2.4

    So as you morons can see. The UFC has had almost 1 Million more viewers on Fox this year through 3 events than last year. So again the ratings are not declining but improving or at worst holding steady.

  18. aintitthetruth on August 2nd, 2013 9:44 PM

    By “everyone” i think you mean everyone your halfway house. does your p.o. know yoour online? that could violate the terms of your parole.

    I’m not sure what you are trying to prove except that the ratings have stagnated at best. I Doubt that there is the silver lining you are trying to create. bs is b.s.

  19. aintitthetruth on August 2nd, 2013 9:49 PM

    You don’t even cite your sources. you just post numbers and assume people believe you.

  20. aintitthetruth on August 2nd, 2013 9:54 PM

    Fox couldnt care less about a measly million viewers. so if you were trying to prove the ufc had trivial gains on fox you suceeded.

  21. BrainSmasher on August 3rd, 2013 3:10 AM

    If my numbers are who then prove it. Maybe the. You will gain a sliver of cred on here and everyone won’t think of you as the court jester.

    How do you know how Fox feels about a 1 million viewer increase at the half way point of the year? After all that is like 3 Bellator programs added together. Hahaha

  22. Fokman on August 3rd, 2013 6:37 AM

    Good stuff in here! You are correct the numbers are up slightly and Fox is winning the key demo which is most important as the interview stated. Also I would guarantee that overall viewers over all of the Fox platforms is up too.

    I hate the Nielsen system for much of the reasons you mentioned. I also wonder how they have enough boxes in each region with multiple carriers. I would guess that viewing habits are also tied to the region of which they reside. Not to mention the clear opportunities for bribery.

    With so much money on the line you would think that there would be a push by the networks with the technology today to have a new system put in place or at least ask Nielsen to look to improve their system using new technology.

  23. aintitthetruth on August 3rd, 2013 9:48 AM

    Telling a person who challenges your claims to look it up is a logical fallacy. thats how i know you are full of it. http://www.daltonator.net/durandal/creationism/fallacies.shtml. see “shifting the onus” on the link provided you child.
    I don’t get why you are so concerned with bellator. and fox doesn’t care because one million viewers is a trivial amount when we are talking frew television.

  24. aintitthetruth on August 3rd, 2013 10:09 AM

    It should have occurred to me earlier, but bs bringing up bellator out of thin air is a logical fallacy called a red herring http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_herring

  25. BrainSmasher on August 3rd, 2013 12:47 PM

    You looked up and posted both those links and couldn’t find the time to prove me wrong. I can post 1 link that has all the numbers on it. BUt I wont. You can shove your “logical” rules for debate up your ass. The onus to prove something is on anyone who cares enough about their stance to back it up. Whether its proving something right or wrong. Those “rules” are for losers who cant support their stance. Especially in this case. The information is readily available. Im not running all over the net just because an ass clown refuses to believe what he knows is true. In that case you can keep denying anything just to send people on wild goose chases.

    Also Bellator didn’t come out of thin air. I was talking about it on another page. Unlike you I have few limitations. Being confined to one page isn’t one of them.

  26. aintitthetruth on August 3rd, 2013 2:01 PM
  27. aintitthetruth on August 3rd, 2013 2:55 PM


  28. anti sampson on August 3rd, 2013 4:52 PM

    Sampson why so simple minded? Do u live in your moms basement?

  29. Sampson Simpson on August 3rd, 2013 8:07 PM

    I win! I have 2 stalkers and one pet here

  30. anti sampson on August 3rd, 2013 8:37 PM

    Get laid it will change the way you think

  31. Sampson Simpson on August 4th, 2013 8:21 AM

    I get laid everyday. I think you should try it girl… it would take your mind off me

  32. Jeremy on August 4th, 2013 7:05 PM

    Millions of dollars and years of research have gone into the ratings system. Statistics are highly scientific in terms of representational value.

    If the networks really felt these numbers were off, somebody would have challenged Nielsen years ago.

    As far as numbers go, BrainSmasher’s numbers are correct. At this point, the Summer UFC Fox shows are expected to do poorly as they don’t have Football to advertise on. The UFC continues to deliver in the key demos and Fox is happy with that. The UFC is not always happy, but Fox is. It took two bad seasons of TUF to get Fox to agree to move it off of Friday nights. Fox was ok with the numbers because the demos were solid, but the UFC was upset with the overall viewership.

    Spike lives and dies by the 18-49 and 18-34 Male demos While Bellator’s overall numbers are not always great, they are bringing in the demographics that Spike wants and that is, at this point in time, enough.

  33. BrainSmasher on August 4th, 2013 8:24 PM


    I don’t think there is is way to know if the demo’s are equally weighed. Especially when it comes to geography. With only 20K homes. It is virtually impossible to accurately represent each demographic.

    As for someone else stepping up to challenge Nielson. How do we know if there is enough money for anyone one to want to? Nielson has been around for decades and only amassed 20,000 boxes for survey takers? They are either not investing the money into the research or there isn’t much money to fund it large scale. Which is why there isn’t any competition. I mean how much more could these boxes cost than the cable boxes cable companies have given away by the millions over the years?

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