Although different regions can use various methods, the traditional way to monitor TV watching habits has been an evaluation system. In many countries, including the United States, the Nielsen Company uses internal devices that track the viewing habits of thousands of people. These numbers represent what average people of a certain age and gender look at, which then indicate the number of viewers who are likely to watch a particular program. Networks use this information to assess the popularity of certain shows, which determines how much they charge companies to advertise during those shows.

The Nielsensen company

The Nielsen Company tracks the programs viewers watch on television networks through a representative sample of about 25,000 households that allow the company to record the programs they watch. This is a fairly small sample, considering that U.S. families with televisions for the 2010-2011 listening season have been estimated at nearly 116 million, but they choose people based on their ability to represent different populations. For example, Nielsen could choose a family with adults and children from multiple sexes and age groups to better represent more viewers.

How information is collected

Every time someone in a Nielsen family turns on a TV, it indicates who it is and the box tracks how long the person watches a show. Each member of a family has their own viewing habits individually recorded, indicating who is watching television at any given time. If multiple people, including guests, view a schedule, each enters their own age and gender information in the box so that each person’s viewing habits can be tracked. This viewer-specific data distinguishes information recorded by Nielsen from data collected by a normal cable TV.


Nielsen turns this sample of viewers into a percentage that represents the total viewers. If 2,500 people in Nielsen families watch Example News Show in a week, for example, they conclude that 10% of TV viewers in all families watched the show. This would indicate a rating of 10 points and the networks rank their shows based on the number of spectators they have each week.

Demographics and business assessments

More important than just the ratings of a show are certain demographics and ‘business valuations’ for a program. Since the Nielsen box tracks viewing habits by age and gender, companies can specifically target certain groups, such as people between the ages of 18 and 49. This age group tends to buy more products than other ages, so it has become the most important population for many advertisers. Networks can charge more money to advertisers who place ads in a show with a high number of viewers in this demographic, even if the overall ratings of the show are lower than those of another program more popular among older or younger audiences.

The Nielsen Company has also established a secondary rating called ‘trade valuation’, which is based on ad display habits. Ratings have value for networks because they use these numbers to sell time to advertisers. Ad ratings indicate whether people are actually watching ads or simply skipping them through recorded programs or channel switching. Many advertisers care more about business ratings than general ratings or market share, since viewers who skip their ads aren’t as valuable to them as those who watch ads.
Months of sweeping
Many viewers have heard the term “sweep” related to ratings. During the months of November, February, May, and July, Nielsen sends viewing diaries to millions of households. People keep a manual record of what they look at and then send this information to the company. The networks often run particularly exciting programs to attract more viewers during these months, which increases their number in the diaries collected.

Deferred vision and television over the Internet
A major problem that has arisen for classification systems is the growing popularity of digital video recorders (DVRs) that allow people to record shows and watch them at a later date, called ‘time-overview’. Nielsen ratings take these viewers into account, but they can’t track exactly what programs are being watched at what time, only that viewers have recorded them and probably watched them within about three days. As many people skip ads while playing on DVRs, many advertisers don’t care much about these numbers.
The increased availability of shows on the Internet offered new possibilities to keep track of viewing habits. Television networks can easily see how many people pay and download a show through various websites and many of them offer shows for free with limited advertising. The number of downloads can be recorded by television networks and could influence decisions about maintaining certain programs on the air. However, many advertisers do not consider such viewing as valuable as normal TV viewing, which has made Internet streams for shows less financially important than traditional broadcasts.

Angelo Raguso
Author: Angelo Raguso

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *