Nielsen ratings

Nielsen ratings are the audience measurement systems developed by Robert F. Elder and Louis F. Woodruff and sold to Nielsen Company, in an effort to determine the audience size and composition of television programming in the United States. Nielsen Media Research was founded by Arthur C. Nielsen, a market analyst whose career had begun in the 1920s with brand advertising analysis and had expanded into radio market analysis during the 1930s, culminating in Nielsen ratings of radio programming, which was meant to provide statistics as to the markets of radio shows. The first Nielsen ratings for radio programs were released the first week of December 1947. They measured the top 20 programs in four areas: total audience, average audience, cumulative audience and homes per dollar spent for time and talent.[1]

In 1950, Nielsen moved to television, developing a ratings system using the methods he and his company had developed for radio. That method has since become the primary source of audience measurement information in the television industry around the world.

Measuring ratings

Nielsen television ratings are gathered in one of two ways:

  1. Viewer "diaries", in which a target audience self-records its viewing or listening habits. By targeting various demographics, the assembled statistical models provide a rendering of the audiences of any given show, network, and programming hour.
  2. A more technologically sophisticated system uses Set Meters, which are small devices connected to televisions in selected homes. These devices gather the viewing habits of the home and transmit the information nightly to Nielsen through a "Home Unit" connected to a phone line. The technology-based home unit system is meant to allow market researchers to study television viewing habits on a minute to minute basis, seeing the exact moment viewers change channels or turn off their television set. In addition to set meters, individual viewer reporting devices, such as people meters, have allowed the company to separate household viewing information into various demographic groups, but so far Nielsen has refused to change its distribution of data of ethnic groups into subgroups, which could give more targeted information to networks and advertisers.

Changing systems of viewing have impacted Nielsen's methods of market research. In 2005, Nielsen began measuring the usage of digital video recording devices such as TiVo. Initial results indicated that time-shifted viewing will have a significant impact on television ratings. A year later, the networks were not yet figuring these new results into their ad rates because of the resistance of advertisers.[2]

Ratings/share and total viewers

The most commonly cited Nielsen results are reported in two measurements: ratings points and share, usually reported as: "ratings points/share". As of 2013, there were an estimated 115.6 million television households in the United States, up 1.2% from the previous year because of the inclusion of televisions that receive content over the Internet. A single national ratings point represents 1% of the total number, or 1,156,000 households for the 2013–14 season.[3] Nielsen re-estimates the number of television-equipped households each August for the upcoming television season.

Share is the percentage of television sets in use that are tuned to the program. For example, Nielsen may report a show as receiving a 9.2/15 during its broadcast; this would mean that out of all television-equipped households, 9.2% were tuned in to that program, and out of all television-equipped households with a television currently in use, 15% were tuned in to that program.[4]

Because ratings are based on samples, it is possible for shows to get a 0.0 rating, despite having an audience; the CNBC talk show McEnroe was one notable example.[5] Another example is The CW show, CW Now, which received two 0.0 ratings in the same season. In 2014, Nielsen reported that American viewership of live-television (totaling on average four hours and 32 minutes per day) had dropped 12 minutes per day compared to the year before. Nielsen reported several reasons for the shift away from live-television: increased viewership of time-shifted television (mainly through DVRs) and viewership of internet video (clips from video sharing websites and streams of full-length television shows).[6]


Nielsen Media Research also provides statistics on specific demographics as advertising rates are influenced by such factors as age, gender, race, economic class, and area. Younger viewers are considered more attractive for many products, whereas in some cases older and wealthier audiences are desired, or female audiences are desired over males.

In general, the number of viewers within the 18–49 age range is more important than the total number of viewers.[7][8] According to Advertising Age, during the 2007–08 season, ABC was able to charge $419,000 per commercial sold during its medical drama Grey's Anatomy, compared to only $248,000 for a commercial during CBS' CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, despite CSI having almost five million more viewers on average.[9] Because of its strength in young "demos" (demographic groups), NBC was able to charge almost three times as much for a commercial during Friends as CBS charged for Murder, She Wrote, even though the two series had a similar amount of total viewership during the two seasons they were on the air concurrently.[7] Glee (on Fox) and The Office (on NBC) drew fewer total viewers than NCIS (on CBS) during the 2009–10 season, but earned an average of $272,694 and $213,617 respectively, compared to $150,708 for NCIS.[10]

Commercial ratings

Nielsen also provides viewership data calculated as the average viewership for only the commercial time within the program. These "Commercial Ratings" first became available on May 31, 2007. Additionally, Nielsen provides different "streams" of this data in order to take into consideration delayed viewing (DVR) data, at any interval up to seven days.[11] C3 was the metric launched in 2007, and refers to the ratings for average commercial minutes in live programming plus total playback by digital video recorder out to three days after.[12] By the end of 2012, some television executives wanted to see C7, ratings for live plus seven days, with CBS Corporation chief executive officer Les Moonves making the claim C7 made ratings increase by 30%.[13]


"Sweeps" redirects here. For other uses, see Sweeps (disambiguation).

Electronic metering technology is the heart of the Nielsen ratings process. Two types of meters are used: set meters capture what channel is being tuned, while People Meters go a step further and gather information about who is watching the channel at that time.

Diaries are also used to collect viewing information from sample homes in many television markets in the United States, and smaller markets are measured by paper diaries only. Each year, Nielsen processes approximately two million paper diaries from households across the country,[14] for the months of November, February, May and July—also known as the "sweeps" rating periods.[15] The term "sweeps" dates from 1954, when Nielsen collected diaries from households in the Eastern United States first; from there they would "sweep" west.[16] Seven-day diaries (or eight-day diaries in homes with DVRs) are mailed to homes to keep a tally of what is watched on each television set and by whom. Over the course of a sweeps period, diaries are mailed to a new panel of homes each week. At the end of the month, all of the viewing data from the individual weeks is aggregated.

This local viewing information provides a basis for program scheduling and advertising decisions for local television stations, cable systems, and advertisers. Typically, the November, February and May sweeps are considered more important; nevertheless, the July sweeps can have local impact in regard to personnel.[15]

In some of the mid-size markets, diaries provide viewer information for up to two additional “sweeps” months (October and January).

Nielsen sweeps periods
Season November February May July
2016–2017 October 27 – November 23, 2016 January 26 – February 22, 2017 April 27 – May 24, 2017 June 29 – July 26, 2017
2017–2018 October 26 – November 21, 2017 January 25 – February 21, 2018 April 26 – May 23, 2018 June 28 – July 25, 2018
2018–2019 October 25 – November 21, 2018 January 31 – February 27, 2019 April 25 – May 22, 2019 June 27 – July 24, 2019
2019–2020 October 24 – November 27, 2019 January 30 – February 26, 2020 April 23 – May 27, 2020 June 25 – July 29, 2020

Criticism of ratings systems

There is some public critique regarding accuracy and potential bias within Nielsen's rating system, including some concerns that the Nielsen ratings system is rapidly becoming outdated because of new technology like smartphones, DVRs, tablet computers and Internet streaming services as preferred or alternative methods for television viewing. In June 2006, however, Nielsen announced a plan to revamp its entire methodology to include all types of media viewing in its sample.[17]

Since viewers are aware of being part of the Nielsen sample, it can lead to response bias in recording and viewing habits. Audience counts gathered by the self-reporting diary methodology are sometimes higher than those gathered by the electronic meters which eliminate any response bias. This trend seems to be more common for news programming and popular prime time programs. In addition, daytime and late night viewing tends to be under-reported by the diary.

Another criticism of the measuring system itself is that it fails the most important criterion of a sample: it is not random in the statistical sense of the word. A small fraction of the population is selected and only those that actually accept are used as the sample size. In many local areas during the 1990s, the difference between a rating that kept a show on the air and one that would cancel it was so small as to be statistically insignificant, and yet the show that just happened to get the higher rating would survive.[18] In addition, the Nielsen ratings encouraged a strong push for demographic measurements. This caused problems with households that had multiple television sets or households where viewers would enter the simpler codes (usually their child's) raising serious questions to the quality of the demographic data.[18] The situation further deteriorated as the popularity of cable television expanded the number of viewable networks to the point that the margin of error has increased, because the sampling sizes are too small.[18][19][20] Compounding matters is the fact that of the sample data that is collected, advertisers will not pay for time shifted programs (those that are recorded for replay at a different time),[21] rendering the "raw" numbers useless from a statistical point of view. Even in 2013, it was noted that Internet streams of television programs were still not counted because they had either no ads (such as Netflix) or totally different advertising (such as Hulu) than their television counterparts, effectively skewing the raw data on how popular a show really is.[22]

A related criticism of the Nielsen ratings system is its lack of a system for measuring television audiences in environments outside the home, such as college dormitories, transport terminals, bars, jails and other public places where television is frequently viewed, often by large numbers of people in a common setting. In 2005, Nielsen announced plans to incorporate viewing by away-from-home college students into its sample. Internet television viewing is another rapidly growing market for which Nielsen ratings fail to account for viewers. iTunes, Hulu, YouTube, and some of the networks' own websites (such as and provide full-length web-based programming, either subscription-based or ad-supported. Though web sites can already track popularity of a site and the referring page, they cannot track viewer demographics. To both track this and expand their market research offerings, Nielsen purchased NetRatings in 2007.[23] However, as noted in a February 2012 New York Times article, the computer and mobile streams of a program are counted separately from the standard television broadcasts, further degrading the overall quality of the sampling data. As a result, there was no way for NBC to tell if there was any overlap between the roughly 111.3 million traditional television viewers and 2.1 million live stream viewers of Super Bowl XLVII.[24]

Responding to the criticism regarding accusations by several media executives (including Viacom CEO Phillippe Dauman and former Fox Entertainment Group chief operating officer Chase Carey) that it failed to count viewers watching television programs on digital platforms, Nielsen executive vice president of global product leadership Megan Clarken stated in an April 2015 summit by the Coalition for Innovative Media Measurement that the company is able to count digital viewers in audience and demographic reports, but are unable to do so under the current set of rules devised by networks and advertising industries last revised in 2006. As such, Nielsen can only count viewership for television-originated broadcasts, and must exclude viewers who watch programs on digital platforms if the program does not have an identical advertising load or a linear watermark.[25]

After Nielsen took over the contract for producing data on Irish advertising in 2009, agencies said that they were "disastrous" and claimed that the information produced by them is too inaccurate to be trusted by them or their clients.[26]

In 2004, News Corporation retained the services of public relations firm Glover Park to launch a campaign aimed at delaying Nielsen's plan to replace its aging household electronic data collection methodology in larger local markets with its newer electronic People Meter system. The advocates in the public relations campaign charged that data derived from the newer People Meter system represented a bias toward underreporting minority viewing, which could lead to a de facto discrimination in employment against minority actors and writers. However, Nielsen countered the campaign by revealing its sample composition counts. According to Nielsen Media Research's sample composition counts, as of November 2004, nationwide, African American households using People Meters represented 6.7% of the Nielsen sample, compared to 6.0% in the general population. Latino households represent 5.7% of the Nielsen sample, compared to 5.0% in the general population. By October 2006, News Corporation and Nielsen settled, with Nielsen agreeing to spend an additional $50 million to ensure that minority viewing was not being underreported by the new electronic people meter system.[27]

In 2011, CBS and Nielsen proposed a model consisting of six viewer segments which according to their empirical research are more relevant for advertisers than older models based on gender and age. The segments are based on user behavior, motivations, and psychographics. It is argued that the model can increase reaching the desired audience as well as message recall and advertisement likeability.[28]

Top-rated programs

The table below lists all the television shows with the highest average household Nielsen rating for each television season.[29][30][31][32][33]

     The program with the all-time highest average rating is in bold text
     Sports programs have italicized rating numbers
     Two or more programs tie for highest average Nielsen rating in the same season
     The program with the all-time longest winning streak in Nielsen ratings based on number of consecutive seasons

Season Program Network Rating
1950–1951 Texaco Star Theater
1951–1952 Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts
1952–1953 I Love Lucy 67.3
1953–1954 58.8
1954–1955 49.3
1955–1956 The $64,000 Question 47.5
1956–1957 I Love Lucy 43.7
1957–1958 Gunsmoke 43.1
1958–1959 39.6
1959–1960 40.3
1960–1961 37.3
1961–1962 Wagon Train
1962–1963 The Beverly Hillbillies
1963–1964 39.1
1964–1965 Bonanza
1965–1966 31.8
1966–1967 29.1
1967–1968 The Andy Griffith Show
1968–1969 Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In
1969–1970 26.3
1970–1971 Marcus Welby, M.D.
1971–1972 All in the Family
1972–1973 33.3
1973–1974 31.2
1974–1975 30.2
1975–1976 30.1
1976–1977 Happy Days
1977–1978 Laverne & Shirley 31.6
1978–1979 30.5
1979–1980 60 Minutes
1980–1981 Dallas 34.5
1981–1982 28.4
1982–1983 60 Minutes 25.5
1983–1984 Dallas 25.7
1984–1985 Dynasty
1985–1986 The Cosby Show
1986–1987 34.9
1987–1988 27.8
1988–1989 25.6
1989–1990 The Cosby Show
1990–1991 Cheers
1991–1992 60 Minutes
1993–1994 20.9
1994–1995 Seinfeld
1995–1996 ER 22.0
1996–1997 21.2
1997–1998 Seinfeld 21.7
1998–1999 ER 17.8
1999–2000 Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? — Tuesdays
2000–2001 Survivor: The Australian Outback
2001–2002 Friends
2002–2003 CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
2003–2004 15.9
2004–2005 16.5
2005–2006 American Idol — Tuesday
2006–2007 American Idol — Wednesday 17.3
2007–2008 American Idol — Tuesday 16.1
2008–2009 American Idol — Wednesday 15.1
2009–2010 American Idol — Tuesday 13.7
2010–2011 American Idol — Wednesday 14.5
2011–2012 Sunday Night Football
2012–2013 NCIS
2013–2014 Sunday Night Football
2014–2015 Sunday Night Football
2015–2016 NCIS

See also


  1. "Top 20 Network Shows, Rated 4 Ways, Announced by Nielsen" (PDF). Broadcasting-Telecasting. Broadcasting Publications, Inc. December 8, 1947. Retrieved October 26, 2014.
  2. Gary Levin (October 12, 2006). "Playback time for Nielsens". USA Today. Gannett Company. p. 1D.
  3. "Nielsen Reverses Decline in U.S. TV Homes". Variety. Penske Media Corporation. May 7, 2013. Retrieved April 28, 2014.
  4. Frank Baker (February 12, 2009). "What is a RATING". Media Literacy Clearinghouse. Retrieved March 2, 2009.
  5. Lisa de Moraes (August 13, 2004). "Where's the Love? CNBC Scrambles to Woo Viewers for 'McEnroe'". The Washington Post. The Washington Post Company. Retrieved June 8, 2007.
  6. "Nielsen trends: Total audience measurement". CNN Money. December 3, 2014.
  7. 1 2 Michael Storey (April 23, 2009). "THE TV COLUMN: Not in 18–49 age group? TV execs write you off". Arkansas Democrat Gazette. Retrieved May 2, 2008.
  8. Bill Carter (April 6, 2010). "An 'Idol' Ratings Loss, but Not in Its Pocketbook". The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved April 8, 2010.
  9. Rosario Santiago (October 3, 2007). "For Advertising Purposes, 'Grey's Anatomy' May Well be Colored Green". BuddyTV. Retrieved May 3, 2009.
  10. Brian Steinberg (October 18, 2010). "Simon Who? 'Idol' Spots Still Priciest in Prime Time". Advertising Age. Retrieved October 28, 2010.
  11. Gary Holmeys (January 16, 2006). "Nielsen Announces Schedule And Plan For Commercial-Minute Ratings". Nielsen Media Research. Retrieved July 2, 2007.
  12. Jon Lafayette (October 7, 2007). "Commercial Ratings Shuffle the Deck". Television Week. Retrieved May 13, 2008.
  13. Anthony Crupi (November 14, 2012). "C3POh No! Broadcasters Agitate for Better Ratings Currency". AdWeek. Retrieved April 9, 2013.
  14. "Television Measurement | TV Ratings". Retrieved June 2, 2014.
  15. 1 2 Alan Pergament (August 6, 2014). "Summertime, when the leaving is easy to figure out". The Buffalo News. BH Media Group, LLC. Retrieved August 6, 2014.
  16. "For the TV Station Business, Sweeps Stakes Are Still High". Broadcasting & Cablepublisher=NewBay Media. February 17, 2014. p. 34.
  17. Aline van Duynin (June 15, 2006). "Digital TV Prompts Nielsen Ratings Revamp". Financial Times. Retrieved February 12, 2014.
  18. 1 2 3 "Can You Believe TV Ratings?". Nova / Horizon. February 18, 1992. PBS.
  19. Andrea Segal (April 26, 2007). "Nielsen Ratings: An Inaccurate Truth". The Cornell Daily Sun. Retrieved January 19, 2008.
  20. John Herrman (January 31, 2011). "Why Nielsen Ratings Are Inaccurate, and Why They'll Stay That Way". Splitsider. Retrieved April 28, 2012.
  21. Gary Levin (April 25, 2007). "Networks' top shows at a rating loss". USA Today. Gannett Company. p. 1D.
  22. Brian Stelter (February 21, 2013). "Nielsen Adjusts Its Ratings to Add Web-Linked TVs". The New York Times. The New York Times Company.
  23. "Briefing: Nielsen to purchase all NetRatings shares". International Herald Tribune. The New York Times Company. February 5, 2007. Retrieved October 10, 2008.
  24. Brian Stelter (February 8, 2012). "Youths Are Watching, but Less Often on TV". The New York Times. The New York Times Company.
  25. David Lieberman (April 22, 2015). "Nielsen Says Industry Rules Bar It From Including Digital Viewers In TV Ratings". Media.
  26. Laura Noonan (February 4, 2010). "Media agencies losing trust in Nielsen for supply of critical data". Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  27. Michael Learmonth (October 26, 2006). "Rupe ends Nielsen tiff". Retrieved April 20, 2009. (subscription required)
  28. Jack Neff (March 23, 2011). "CBS: Viewers' Age and Sex Shouldn't Matter to Marketers". Advertising Age.
  29. Alex McNeil (1996). Total Television (4th ed.). New York City, New York: Penguin Books. pp. 1143–1161. ISBN 0-14-024916-8.
  30. "2003-04 Season To Date Program Rankings from September 22, 2003 Through May 30, 2004". ABC Medianet. 2004-06-02. Archived from the original on February 8, 2007. Retrieved November 24, 2006.
  31. Tim Brooks; Earle Marsh (2007). The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946–present. New York City, New York: Ballantine. pp. 1679–1698. ISBN 978-0-345-49773-4.
  32. Nellie Andreeva (May 27, 2011). "Full 2010-11 Season Series Rankers". Media. Retrieved May 27, 2011.
  33. "Top-Rated Programs by Season (2007-Present)".

Further reading

External links

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