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.