Friday, April 29, 2011

Mr. Nielsen

One odd hobby of mine is my fascination with entertainment. No, not just show content and celebrities, but how shows do in ratings and how networks market and make money. Almost every day I will check in with the Nielsen ratings system to see how shows are holding up in the ratings. I know what is an acceptable total viewer number, what is a good demo number (specifically in the 18-49 and 18-34 age range), and how shows try to make money. I understand how the internet and DVRs are measured (mostly), how once syndication kicks in shows get more expensive and usually have trouble settling contracts (a la “Bones” and “House” this year), and the most important part is, I find it all fascinating.

The thing is, measuring television viewing is a flawed system. Since DVR and online streaming, no one really knows how many people are watching the shows and what commercials are getting to the viewer. No one really knows for certain that the 18-34 demo is really the most important range to broadcast to- their reasoning is 18-34 year olds typically watch less TV so their viewing is more important because they really want commercials for their products to reach them since they are watching less. Who knows if commercials actually work- in the age of the internet and DVRs do people actually pay attention or do they zone out/fast forward through them? They only assume (and hope) that their assumptions about marketing are correct. In the age of 100+ cable channels, people watch most individual shows in less numbers than they did even ten years ago. But there are other ways to make money now- DVD’s, iTunes, Netflix, hulu, product placement (love how your favorite FOX shows plug Toyota’s all the time? Never noticed?- pay attention b/c Toyota sponsors FOX), and the big momma of SYNDICATION ($$$$$). For instance, when Friends was on in the 90’s, it normally had viewership in the 25-35 million range. That is UNHEARD of today in network TV (besides American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, and football)- most decent shows get about 10 million viewers and some even less than that if their 18-34/49 demos are good. Shows that were cancelled 10 years ago would still be on today. Execs also don’t just base their decisions on whether or not to keep a show on numbers- it has to do with fan base, critical acclaim and word of mouth (remember all the backlash about "Firefly?”)

Anyways, it is a very interesting phenomenon. Network TV doesn’t make money like it used to- cable rules because customers pay for the channels so they can have smaller numbers and still make money. That’s why network TV has been under such fire lately- how can they produce quality, ground breaking shows that make money, when they are competing against networks who can be riskier and more explicit in their content because they can survive on smaller numbers. It's why reality shows are so popular now- cheaper to make and easy to market to specific target groups. It will be interesting to see how this all changes in my lifetime considering how much about TV has changed since its inception.

So go and pay attention to ratings and television shows- it is a nice hobby that teaches you about the high-powered business world of big money making companies.
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