Loyalty and passion are the only TV “ratings” that should matter

The Nielsen Rating system is having some problems. Big problems.

People watch tv shows in a lot of different ways in the 21st Century. They record and “time-shift”, they download, they stream, and many have “cut the cord” and just pirate their favorite shows. And many just “binge watch,” waiting until an entire season is done to watch it all at once. Nielsen has adjusted their rating models twice over the past few years, and now report two numbers for shows: the traditional “real-time” rating and a second number that represents DVR views. As the media companies financial model, which is driven by advertising dollars, is based on the number of viewers… well, the Nielsen company is under a lot of pressure to get things right.

I don’t thank they can.

The ratings system worked great for years… the same way that buggy whips worked quite well over a century ago. The new ways of viewing enumerated above are making accurate tracking of viewership a fool’s errand, especially with “cult” shows with a rabid following. Reading articles about how the networks are working with Nielsen to get more accurate numbers (and forcing adjustments to the company’s tracking models) reminds me of Nielsen’s first major change in tracking viewers… demographics. Nielsen implemented demographic sampling into their numbers in the early ’70s, to identify “high value” viewers such as young males, age 18 to 35 – viewers who have a lot of discretionary income they could spend on products advertised on TV. If Nielsen had implemented demographic analysis just a couple of years earlier, a little sci-fi TV program named Star Trek would never have been canceled after three seasons.

Gee, I wonder whatever happened to that show…

In the 21st century, raw numbers and demographic breakdowns are not enough. Networks need to look at other factors like loyalty, passion and social media engagement. Much like Star Trek would have had continued if the network knew who was watching, shows like Firefly and Twin Peaks would have continued past their respective one or two seasons if these factors were considered by the execs. Heck, viewers are STILL passionate about both of those shows, years later.

The problem, of course, is loyalty and passion are harder to measure than traditional viewership numbers… but it’s not impossible. Services like Twitter and Facebook provide great data points that can be “mined” to gauge what viewers think of shows. Twitter is even “open source,” in that all tweets are publicly viewable (and can be aggregated and analyzed with the proper tools). All networks should use these metrics as an input to their decisions, and wake up to the fact that social media is more than just another way to market themselves. Both the Republican and Democratic campaigns did a lot of analysis of what people were saying on social networks in this year’s presidential election; content providers would be wise to do the same thing.

Shows like The Walking Dead have both ratings and a rabid loyal fan base, but that is the exception, not the rule. Many shows have a rabid following but low ratings (Community, Fringe are two examples) and are often still on the air only because network execs have no better shows “in the wings” to replace them with. How many shows would last more than six episodes if TV execs were able to get an early sense of the passion of their viewers? Quite a few, I’d wager.

A closing example: QMX, a company that produces movie and TV tie-in products, told me earlier this year their number one best seller (every month) was a model of Serenity, the ship from the show Firefly. “It’s the little ship that could.” Loyal viewers who keep buying these tie-ins prove the point: the show means more to them than just numbers in a ratings chart. Numbers are important, but there’s a lot more to life than just that. A half-million passionate fans who will never miss an episode are worth a lot more than three million casual viewers… they will loyally purchase merchandise tie-ins and make your company a lot of money.

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Joseph Dickerson

Joseph Dickerson is a user experience professional based out of Atlanta, GA. He has implemented processes in user testing, design and ethnographic research and provided design and consulting services for many different projects and organizations.

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