Lillian Explains the Nielsen Ratings (Or How You Too Can Play “Charlie”)

At an industry panel at Carnegie Mellon, just before we graduated, someone asked why shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, American Idol, and Two and a Half Men remain on the air while more adventurous and artistic fare (anthologies, Pushing Daisies, Better Off Ted, etc.)  gets slowly shunted to the side and eventually canceled. The magic answer, folks, is advertising money, or rather, how those advertisers choose the shows they back: the Nielsen Ratings.

How It Works

You’ve probably heard the term “Nielsen Ratings” flung around at some point. It’s how networks claim the “#1 Drama on Television” “#1 Comedy Block on the Air,” etc. The Nielsen households are a set of about 25,000 homes throughout the nation that have “Set Meters” attached to their televisions. These Set Meters record what is watched by the household and send that data through the phonelines to the Nielsen company, an advertising consulting firm.

Not everyone has Set Meters. You would know if you did. When the Nielsen Company calls, the first thing they’ll ask is if you have a family member in the entertainment industry. They don’t want your family ties contaminating their data. Yet, even if you don’t have an uncle who’s a grip for Jerry Springer, think about how being a Nielsen household might affect your viewing habits. Compare how you watch television with your parents vs. how you watch when you’re alone. (They know you watch 90210 guys. Really they do.) Though there are lots of measures in place to try to keep Nielsen households from undue pressure, you behave differently when you know someone cares about what you watch. From an ion article about the Nielsens:

We weren’t to tell people or accept gifts or otherwise be persuaded to watch a certain show… We did make sure to watch Buffy and Angel in syndicated repeats, and made a special effort to watch the first season of the Venture Bros, which did need just another household or two to put it over the top. And it worked.

A partisan Nielsen voter? WHA?!?

There are two numbers in Nielsen Ratings: rating points and shares. Rating points refer to what percentage of Nielsen households were tuned into the show at any given time out of all the Nielsen households. Shares refer to the percentage of television that were tuned to the show out of all the Nielsen household televisions that were on. In the Nielsen reports, these numbers are displayed side by side. For example, last night’s season closer of Bones had a 3.2/8, i.e. 3.2% of total households watched the show, but it goes up to 8% of households who were watching TV on a Thursday night at 9 PM.

So that’s the electronic part. The more primitive version is a series of paper diaries that the Nielsen Company sends to the households, telling them exactly who is watching which show. Is it that coveted seventeen-year-old boy watching Hellcats or is his grandfather? Recently Nielsen has moved to “people meters,” specific meters for each family member.

How It’s Broken

The trouble with the Nielsen rating is two-fold. One: That’s 25,000 households out of over a million. Even though this is same sort of sampling used for political polling, polling numbers are often wrong or skewed. It’s just what happens when you use a small model and expand it to a much larger map. One also has to be careful when sampling to get a full account of racial, ethnic, economic, and class diversity.

The second problem with the Nielsen ratings is that they haven’t found a good way to take alternative ways of watching into account: streaming, DVR, Netflix. Their defense is that they’re moving slowly to figure it out and that they know things need to change. Yet with the advent of internet ready TVs and services like Hulu+, advertisers need to track the legitimate ways of watching TV right now. The good news is that the more we rely on the internet, the easier it is to count your audience. (Remember those page views counters you’d see on websites that haven’t updated since 1998?)

Advertising is based on research. You can’t develop a good campaign if you don’t know how it’s working. Without the Nielsen Ratings, ad buyers can’t decide how to spend their money, can’t know if the networks are charging fair prices for ad time. Why pay upfront rather than waiting to see how the new seasons and new shows do? Because ad time allotted on a first come, first served basis. The earlier you sink your money into a show, the easier it is to claim the commercial break right before they crown the new American Idol.

Explaining Charlie

Okay, back to Two and a Half Men. Why does it get such high Nielsen numbers, even just in syndication? Well, as we’ve learned, more people are watching it as they flip through the channels. What is it about shows like Two and a Half Men or The Mentalist that earns them large audiences, yet makes them a joke on critical darling 30 Rock?

Several theorists (Frye, Campbell, etc.) have suggested that there are only so many stories, and that each story is an improvisation on an archetype. This is true of characters as well, especially in certain genres. The character of “Charlie” on Two and a Half Men is part of long legacy of scoundrel characters that you can find in commedia dell’arte, comedy of manners, and vaudeville. (In these genres he would have been called “Scandal” or “Ramble” or “Horner.”) It’s a comedy archetype for a reason. We like watching these sexually potent seducers score and then scramble when they get caught.

This is the typical traffic through a society wife's bedroom in a comedy of manners. Pay special attention to the guy climbing out the window.

The scoundrel is a common character in the entertainment of merchant cultures with a quickly growing middle class. The scoundrel is both a social climber and a new member of the elite. He has enough money to pursue his pleasures, but he’s new money, always slightly less than the establishment he infiltrates. We get to simultaneously live through and punish the scoundrel, enjoying his escapades but knowing that he will suffer for them, if only by getting stuck in a window or yelled at by the girl.

Another archetype you see in mercantile cultures is the revenger. That’s the Mentalist, Monk, even Temperance Brennan from Bones. The revenger appears in the tragedies of Elizabethan and Jacobean England, Renaissance Spain, Feudal Japan, and many other cultures and times. Recent television audiences have demanded a kind of trauma from each of the leads of their procedurals. Well, that or writers have been reading too much Jacobean drama. We have to know why we should invest in our cops trying to get their guy. The rule of law and the destruction of evil is not as compelling as one individual working through their trauma by destroying evil, even when their actions might look a little evil in a different context.

The simple gist of this is that television, like all popular entertainment, has to appeal to the widest audience it can, the widest share. Archetypes appeal to the widest share. They’re easy to sell and easy to love. Nerdy girls love Liz Lemon, but many of them still wish they were as cool and seductive as Charlie, or could deal with their problems by catching bad guys like Temperance. (David Boreanaz helps too.) Most guys don’t want to be Liz Lemon. They want to be Jack Donaghy or Seeley Booth. Male protagonists have outnumbered female ones for a very long time, so women are used to seeing themselves in men, but men are trained to not see themselves in women. It’s why Liz Lemon needs Jack Donaghy, why Bones needs Booth in order to keep her ratings. These guys represent a shared dream that a lot of people (men and women) can buy into.

So how do you get Charlie Sheen’s job? Be what everyone wishes they were. More charismatic, more powerful, richer, wittier. Contemporary television is the world of wish fulfillment. Things don’t have to turn out well, but in order to gain a powerful audience share, you need to sell a world that people want to live in, a world where people are smarter, sexier, simultaneously better and badder than we could ever hope to be, the people that we could be if we were brave. Charlie, terrible womanizer that he is, gets what he wants most of the time (after a bit of comical suffering.) That’s something we all want for ourselves.

A more detailed explanation of the Nielsen ratings can be found here. You can check ’em every week here.


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