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Demystifying the TV Ratings: An Interview with TV by the Numbers’ Robert Seidman

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House, M.D. is still very much a hit series. Still going strong, with star Hugh Laurie, continuing to pour everything into his compelling portrayal of Dr. Gregory House, the show is now in its seventh year. The series is probably closer to the end of its long run than it is to the beginning, with Laurie’s contract up the end of next season. 

Having lost its cushy American Idol lead-in a couple of years ago, House is now expected to support Fox’s new and promising ventures, providing an anchor on Mondays at 8:00 (ET).

 The series producers have refused to fall back on formula and have played with viewers expectations a couple of times over the series’ run. And, in a narrative sense, the last two seasons have seen the central character of House also begin to (at least try to) change.

How does all of that affect the show’s ratings and ultimately its future both on Fox and in syndication? And, why are ratings so important, anyway?

Television networks, producers and starring actors all track them. It’s what the industry lives by: they foretell who will live into syndication and who will die after two episodes. But fans watch the ratings too, and House‘s ratings have always been a hot topic within the fan community. This year is no different. 

The Nielsen Ratings have been around television as long as I can remember. I had a friend when I was a kid, and her family was a “Nielsen” family. They had a little box attached to the television and their viewing habits were duly recorded, and every once in a while we’d hear something about a television series being cancelled due to “poor ratings.” 

I recently interviewed Robert Seidman, co-founder of TV by the Numbers, a well-respected Internet authority on TV ratings and well-known for its predictions of series to be canceled or renewed. Seidman tried to demystify for me the entire process for me, mathematically challenged as I am. 

Although television ratings have always been a bit mysterious, with streaming, Web TV options, Amazon and other download services other “time shifting” so pervasive, the ratings game is even more difficult to understand when you’re wondering if your favorite show is going to make it into the next season (or, sometimes, into the next week).

“The primary numbers that are used to broker advertising sales—which is still primarily what, most television is about—come from Nielsen,” says Seidman. People still have boxes attached to the televisions. Although we might get more accurate numbers if everyone’s viewing habits were recorded and compiled, it would seem a bit big-brotherish. “A lot of people don’t want their measurements tracked,” according to Seidman. “So while it’s nice to wish that there could be a real census for TV viewing, a lot of people don’t want to participate in that census.” 

But there’s a more practical reason as well. If The Powers That Be culled data from your cable box or DVR service, it would be raw data. “While it certainly can tell you what was watched when, it can’t tell you what was watched when by whom,” Seidman explained.  “And, that’s sort of the big deal with Nielsen is that they can tell you who in the household watched, whether they’re male or female, how old they are, how much money they make, etc.” And, for television advertisers (for whom this data are intended), those sorts of demographics are key. Nielsen even accounts for those households that do not possess a television (and yes, there are a few–I even know one or two of them). 

“Nielsen projects a lot of things based on, you know, the make up of the population, how old people are, whether they own pets, whether they own trucks, whether they’re going to be buying cars, whether they own their home, all that kind of stuff. So they project a universe estimate for the United States, and then they try to create a panel that basically mirrors the universe estimates that they projected. It is all done via what’s called Nielsen People Meters, boxes that hook up to the sets and track who’s watching what when. Those are in about 25,000 homes and probably represent roughly 50,000 people.” 

Within each household, Seidman explained, each family member has a code, which is entered when he or she begins watching a series. “I believe that something has to be entered every 30 minutes or it won’t count,” he noted. “So if you’re watching CSI Miami at 10:00 p.m. on Sunday night and you fall asleep, some of your time spent sleeping will be credited, but sooner or later [the box] will stop. You won’t be credited with watching CBS for eight hours if you fall asleep for eight hours.”

I wondered (facetiously) if boring shows had an unfair advantage. The show gets credit for being watched if it lulls you to sleep. “I think the later the show is on perhaps the more important that becomes,” Seidman suggested, which makes sense. You’re much more likely to fall asleep the later it gets.

So what do all those ratings numbers mean to the series, the network and to fans? If you look at the ratings sheet (as you might find it in TV Guide or Entertainment Weekly–or on the TV by the Numbers Website), you might see a listing like this for House, M.D: 9.688 million viewers, 5.8/9 HH, 3.6/10 18-49.

Seidman took me through each of these statistics. “The first number, the 9.688 million, that’s the average number of viewers who watch the full show. It’s not the total number of people who watched some part of House. It’s not even necessarily the total number of people who watched the whole show but skipped the commercials on their DVR that night. It is the total number of minutes spent viewing “House” divided by 60 and then converted into people. So it’s the average audience that watched the whole hour. It’s not the total audience that watched any part of the hour.”

So, if you skip past the commercials, changed channel for whatever reason (like check in to see how Dancing With the Stars was going, your House viewing wouldn’t count as a view. According to Seidman, “that probably represented at least 60 percent of the viewing. People who are watching live can’t stop the commercials, they can change the channel at the break, and people do that.” 

Nielsen families check in every half hour, even for an hour show. “So for example,” Seidman further explain, “let’s say that you were in a Nielsen home, and let’s also say you didn’t have a DVR so you were watching live.” If you switch to something else during the commercials and you end up watching a total of 45 minutes of House (which is the approximate length of a commercial-free episode), you would register as only .75 viewer–less than a complete viewer! “Because,” said Seidman, “for one quarter of the hour you were watching something else.”

Of course that’s true of any show, and people who look at the numbers for a living are accustomed to that. The numbers are really just averages. And that number changes depending on whether you are looking at “live” viewers, “same-day DVR” viewers, or people who watch a DVR’d episode within a week.

On, now to the next number “5.8/9.” Seidman explained that 5.8 percent of households (not individual viewers this time) with televisions, “whether they were home or not, were watching House on average for the hour. The nine represents share and the share represents” the number of people watching House of all those who were watching television at that time. “And so, it’s 5.8 percent of all households, 9 percent of the all households watching TV.”

And, now finally that last number 3.6/10 18-49. It reflects the ratings Holy Grail it seems, and the one most coveted by the networks and its advertisers (and dare I say series producers). “The 18 to 49 number,” explained Seidman, “is probably the most useful, commonly widely reported number available. As a general rule for broadcast primetime shows, that’s the group that’s targeted by advertisers.” And as all but the most innocent of TV watchers knows, “TV is really not about giving viewers content,” but about “selling them soap.” And this is the number the advertisers really care about. Of course, those of us no longer in the prize demo tend to feel a bit dismissed. Why this number, when so many over-50s watch so much television. Don’t the advertisers care about them. 

Seidman explained that it’s not that the advertisers think those in the over-50 crowd are so “set in their ways and they’re not going to listen” to what advertisers are selling. “Though, I’m sure,” he added, “that there’s some of that.” He also explained that it’s “not just because the 55-year-old guy” isn’t buying that new trendy car “aimed at very young adults.” 

The problem with those viewers beyond the demo is that there are simply too many of them. “They’re just so widely available nobody wants to pay for them.” Viewers under 50 and “especially people under 35 are so much harder” to capture, “relative to 50-plus. Those eyeballs become more attractive simply by as a result of being scarce.”

When House, M.D. premiered in 2004, I (and, I suspect, a lot of my readers) was in that key 18-49 demo. But since the series has been on more than six years, many of us are no longer there. So does that skew a show’s ratings impact as its viewers fall out of the demo, especially a series running several years that isn’t necessarily going to appeal to the lower end, the 16 or 14 or 13-year-olds who then grow into that demo and take up the slack?

Seidman didn’t think so. “The thing with House, even though it’s seven years old, I think it’s still going to be one of the best-rated shows with adults 18 to 34.” And talk about long in the tooth, Seidman pointed out that, “Theoretically every person watching The Simpsons at this point who started watching it as a young adult is pushing at least 40.” 

There are certain shows that are going have a younger appeal. Grey’s Anatomy and House will generally “skew relatively young compared to, say, NCIS. And though NCIS may have had twice as many viewers [for the particular night we were examining], they were only “three-tenths of a percent higher with 18 to 49.  But like I said like NCIS just has a huge, huge, huge 50-plus audience.”

So, I wondered, how does that all tie in to whether a show is renewed or cancelled–or is simply “on the bubble.” Seidman explained, “It is fairly, fairly easy to predict renew/cancel decisions for scripted shows on broadcast by looking at the 18 to 49 rating for a show relative to that particular network’s average for all of its shows or even all of its scripted shows.” 

As far as House is concerned, offered Seidman, “We can pretty easily tell you with all other things being equal” you can count on House being back next year. Even though, you know, these are sort of at least beyond the first season or two, you know, Monday was probably the lowest rated episode with adults 18 to 49 in years. Despite that, on an absolute basis, its numbers are still pretty good. So it’s not going anywhere. It’s pretty much a guarantee House is going to be on Fox’s schedule next fall.” 

Although the rest of the cast is only signed through the end of the this season, Laurie is signed through season eight. And unless the cast asks for some extraordinarily crazy salary per episode to come back for season eight, Seidman is quite sure we’ll be all be arguing about House again next September. “Even if Hugh has to cast the show by himself, it will still be on,” Seidman laughed.

There is a caveat, however. All bets are off if the ratings tank and in “February it has a 1.6 of 18 to 49 rating. It’s a different animal at that point. But at its current levels, even though that’s way, way off its highs and way off a couple years ago, it’s still good enough that it doesn’t have any fear of being canceled.”

Of course I asked him the burning question on (at least some) fans’ minds. Has the relationship between House and Cuddy affected the ratings?  Seidman was unable to weigh in, although, he said, it’s “one thing I’m sure that your audience wants to know. Unfortunately, from my perspective it’s not clear. It’s not really clear whether this is just normal ratings erosion, you know, more continued further ratings erosion of broadcast network television.” On the other hand, he continued, “I can’t say that has no impact whatsoever.”

Other factors have also had an impact on House‘s ratings, including the having lost its post-American Idol slot, it’s move to an earlier time slot on a much more competitive day, etc. It’s just not possible to tell, given the numbers exactly what causes the number to fluctuate. Losing its Idol lead in was necessary.  “I think it’s important to note,” explained Seidman, “that from Fox’s perspective, it has a limited number of shows that can anchor a night, can do okay without a lead-in and might boost, or at least hopefully, the show that comes on after it; House is one of those shows. The rationale behind doing it makes sense; although, it’s pretty clear to me that if House was on at 9 p.m. Eastern instead of 8 p.m. Eastern, its ratings would be at least a little bit better.”

How we watch television series now is also different. When I first started watching House, mid season one, I had missed episodes I’d been told were pivotal. But there was no way to watch them (except by a friend tediously uploading them hour upon hour over the AOL instant messaging–yes technology has advanced that far in six years!) “You can watch on DVR, you can watch on Hulu, you can watch on Amazon, you can download it from iTunes. If you wait a year or two, you can stream it on Netflix. These things all have an impact, but it doesn’t wind up really making much of a difference, at least in terms of sort of trying to figure out how a show is doing–and whether it’s going to be renewed or canceled. Or, even how much money the show is making,” explained Seidman.

DVR viewing is taken into account in the numbers. The “same day DVR viewing audience count,” is included in the numbers reported the day following the episode’s air-date.  “What happens is any DVR viewing that happens before 3 a.m. is counted into the numbers that we report the next day.” But wait; there’s more! “Nielsen does a variety of other DVR ratings, but the only ones that make any difference are the ‘live plus seven ratings’ which show the program ratings for people who watch not only live, but up to a week later on DVR.” Those ratings don’t come out (obviously) until a week after the live air date. 

“But,” explained Seidman, “the numbers that really, really, really matter which are called the ‘C3 ratings.’ Those measure commercial viewing for shows. That number represents the average viewing of the average commercial minute for the series. And, those numbers are very important because that represents the people not who watched the program but who watched the commercials that are paying the bills.” Hey, and you thought it was smart zipping past the seemingly endless commercial breaks!

Seidman explained that the ratings number counts “live plus three days DVR viewing.” The reason for the three-days has nothing “to do with technology or the networks counting (or not counting) DVR viewing or any of that. It’s this: networks want advertisers to pay for every commercial no matter when it’s watched. And, the advertisers only want to pay for commercials when they’re live.” Three days is a compromise having nothing to do with measuring viewers. 

But, according to Seidman, the next day numbers “make an excellent proxy of how a show is doing, relatively speaking. And so we don’t think it really matters much, at least in terms of figuring out how a show is doing,” what those other number look like.

But the addition of so many different viewing opportunities requires a completely different model. “Online has a completely different sort of mechanism from TV in selling ads, and the primary difference is there’s almost no ads compared to the number of ads that air on television.”

So if the purpose of a television show is to (using our earlier metaphor) “sell soap,” Internet viewing really doesn’t accomplish that. “So the networks are not at all happy about this, and I’m not sure what it’s going to mean for Hulu. But I’m pretty sure what it’s going to mean for fox.com, abc.com, et cetera. Someday, and not all that far from now, there will be at least for the first few days after the show airs on TV, there will be the full complement of commercials online.” 

The obvious question is, will people stand for that? Will they find other ways to watch their shows commercial free. Seidman noted that the “general assumption is people won’t suffer through commercials online, but that’s never really been put to a test.”

As far as measuring the ratings for that kind of Online airing, according to Seidman, “In April [unless is delayed] Nielsen will  begin doing TV and PC measurement.” What that means for viewers is “once that measurement goes into place, you probably are going to see House available on fox.com the very next day.” But, for at least the first three days, it will be available only with its full complement of TV commercials!

What that’s going to do to Hulu is anyone’s guess. According to Seidman, “the guy who runs Hulu is very, very against the notion of full commercial loads.” But what Seidman does know is that, “as soon as that measurement is available, for anyone who uses the full complement of commercials within three days, that’s going to count as much as TV ratings count.”

Obviously the networks and the fans watch the ratings for vastly different reason. Fans want to know that their favorite show is holding up and will be renewed for another season. Networks have a different agenda. But in the end, what affects the ratings? Is it attrition? Is it people looking for alternatives to sitting through six commercial breaks choosing to wait for Amazon’s Unbox version or iTunes to download the next morning? 

“Ultimately,” explained Seidman, “I think what affects the ratings are so many factors that it’s impossible to really pinpoint. So I’ll give you an example. I never watched House like the first maybe three years it was on. I didn’t start watching House until season four. I went back and I caught up, like I think it was the first three seasons.” But none of the first three season were caught live. “Then in seasons four and five, I was a House addict. If it was on Monday, the odds that I would watch at some point Monday night even if it was on DVR were pretty high.”

After season five, Seidman continued to “like and enjoy House, but it doesn’t really matter to me when I watch it. I don’t have to watch Monday night’s episode as soon as it airs.” So, Seidman’s viewing habits have changed twice, and were he a Nielsen viewer, those changes would be factored into the House ratings life cycle. 

Seidman also noted that the seemingly constant availability of House on cable channels like BRAVO and USA Network “can help you and they can hurt. Figuring out exactly how much, it’s hard to say.”

Seidman suggested that in general, there seems to be a “continued flight from broadcast to cable in general. If you look at the big four, even including CW,” he noted, “the erosion from those channels just to cable, has been going on for 30 years. That, too, affects ratings overall. DVRs, viewing habits, “those things all make a big difference. And I think, too, especially for the younger people, though we really can’t measure this, it’s either PlayStation and X-Box and time spent. You used to not have those alternatives. Now you have them, and people use them.”

It’s probably more than you wanted to know about the ratings. But, hopefully we now all have a better handle on those little numbers to which TV fans watch with the fervor of an advertising executive and debate with passion of a preacher. At least it gives us something to discuss here until House returns in two weeks, November 8 with “Office Politics.” 

I will tell you that I’ve seen the next two episodes; they are terrific and Amber Tamblyn, who joins the cast in “Office Politics,” I find to be a breath of fresh air. I really like her and her character! I will be doing a preview of these November episodes next week sometime, so stay tuned!

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."
  • ruthinor

    Kaliera, I agree with much of what you say. However, while Criminal Minds succeeds OK with new cast members, personally, I really thought it lost something when Mandy Patinkin (sp?) left the show. Especially since Thomas Gibson is such a statue! It lost some of its edge, just like CSI lost when Wm. Petersen left. I don’t think that NCIS would do nearly as well w/o Mark Harmon and/or Pauly Perrette. In fact I disagree with you on one thing. I think NCIS is very character driven, and that’s why it’s so popular. The addition of Ziva and subtraction of Kate also helped. Audiences like these characters, and while the types of stories don’t change much, more and more about each character is revealed over time and people have a vested interest in them. I watch because I like the characters and I want to see what happens to them next!

    Perhaps you can tell me why advertisers overlook older folks like me. We would seem to have more buying power than many of the young people they pitch to. I find the whole thing baffling!

  • Kaliera


    To answer your question re: advertisers. The answer is NO advertisers to not care how many total vieweres you get especially when they are old. House’s 18-34 numbers are WAY better then NCIS or Criminal minds, which means that the 18-49’s are closer to the 18 side than the 49 side. The older you skew, the less valuable you are. Sadly the younger your viewer, the more fickle they are. And Yes, I do think it is likely that Fox is doing make goods on House this year and that HIMYM will start charging more per half hour down the line as this year FINALLY it seems to be a “hit.”

    Ruthinor seems to have most of your questions covered and I would point out that Grey’s Anatomy is NOT all over cable (Lifetime barely airs it) and it has no value in repeats even on ABC. One of the reasons you see so much House is that it repeats well both here and internationally. Syndication value always matters, that money comes back to the studio for a lot longer than the ad revenue from new eps.

    NCIS and Criminal Minds have a pretty consistent audience, and very little changes on their show – they don’t experiment and in the case of Criminal Minds it doesn’t seem to matter who the lead is. House is just not the same. It is more character driven then those two shows. So if Mark Harmon’s character Abbey NEVER change a whit, no one cares. Which is why critics don’t care.

    I think my overall point is – that it’s pointless to debate if one storyline is driving down the ratings – there are just soooo many factors. And even taking all those factors into consideration, House will go through to Season Eight. The advantage to Fox to have 150 episodes of this show to syndicate for years to come here and oversees guarantees it.

  • ruthinor

    Your welcome Hyacinth, and it was nice talking with you!

  • Hyacinth

    Yeesh. I meant to say “get DONE,” not “get down.” Makes a big difference!

  • Hyacinth

    Thanks, Ruthinor, for such a polite discussion. You appear to be right about DWTS result show; they seem to expand those to 90 minutes or 2 hours as the competition narrows down. (Makes no sense to me – less dancers, more filler garbage. Groan.)

    Barbara’s interview with Mr. Seidman touched on the subject of people like us who don’t watch the ads, although I usually watch the “live” TV before I’ll watch online. I’ll do just about anything rather than watch the ads! It’s surprising what I can get down in a commercial break.

    I think we have a great deal of common ground. Thanks again for your respectful and articulate input.

  • ruthinor

    Hyacinth: Hi again! From what I can see, NCIS and Glee do compete but DWTS airs an hour later, at least right now. I actually almost never watch shows live. I DVR everything I want to watch so I can skip the ads. I watch Glee and NCIS! I’m retired, so I have the time to watch at my leisure. I really wonder how many people watch ads and even if they do, are they persuaded to buy anything? I generally get much more info on products from the written word, i.e. newspapers /magazines etc.

    I live on the west coast, so I can see reruns of House on USA at 8 PM, sometimes earlier, and 11 days sounds about right. I don’t know about the rest of the country. Personally, I would MUCH rather watch a show on TV rather than on my computer. I would only do so if I missed the original and couldn’t see it for a long time on TV, and with DVR that seems unlikely for many folks. I don’t know what the percentage of TIVO /DVR users there are, but I bet it’s growing every day. I also don’t see how they can accurately predict DVR usage (although I know they try).

    You don’t have to sell NCIS to me! I think it’s one of the most underrated shows on TV (by critics). What’s interesting to me is how popular House is worldwide, much more so than in the USA. I guess one can’t account for people’s tastes!

  • Hyacinth

    Ruthinor, NCIS does contend with the DWTS results show, *and* it is competing with Glee right now. Glee is about the hottest thing on TV with the young crowd, more than HIMYM. (Obviously, Glee wins the young demographics at that time, but NCIS is doing very well.) In the spring, NCIS will contend with the DWTS results show and American Idol, too. They did it last spring and still drew in anywhere from 15-18 million viewers. I’m only saying that NCIS has equally stiff competition and nearly doubles House’s audience – I’m not trying to sell NCIS to anyone. 🙂

    I don’t know why, but I’m pretty sure that the House repeats of the current season usually only air on USA at 11:00 at night, 11 days after they premiere on Fox. I could be wrong about that one since I don’t watch them or keep track of which one is airing any more, but I think it is still correct. I’m not sure when they are posted online at Fox, but I do know that you can watch NCIS the very next day after a premiere on the CBS site, and they don’t seem to worry about diluting the ratings. I’m with you when it comes to thinking that too much of something should dilute the ratings, but it doesn’t always work that way, apparently.

    Who knows? Viewers can be fickle. Maybe House will rise and NCIS will go down this spring. I’ll be the first to admit I’m wrong, I promise.

  • ruthinor

    Hyacinth, how would NCIS perform if it had to compete with HIMYM and DWTS? BTW, critics have NEVER liked NCIS that much. It doesn’t seem to effect their ratings. To me the critical thing is: what is the competition?

    One other thing that I forgot to mention: even though both NCIS and House are also seen on USA, the most recent episodes of NCIS never appear on USA until at least 6 months after they run on CBS. The latest House episodes, on the other hand, appear on USA just a few weeks after they are run on FOX. This would seem to be a policy that would dilute their ratings and I wonder why they choose to do this. I don’t know about the other shows you mentioned, Grey’s Anatomy and CSI, i.e. when they show the latest episodes on cable. As for me, I liked Sherlock, and I still like House (and NCIS!).

  • Hyacinth

    Ruthinor, I understand what you are saying about NCIS skewing an older audience, but if they are still getting more 18-49 viewers than House PLUS the added benefit of millions of fans outside that bracket who might buy their products, wouldn’t advertisers prefer to go with the show that gives them the most for their advertising bucks? Consider that House gets $226,000 per ad spot; NCIS gets $150,000 for theirs. Maybe I’m oversimplifying, but why would advertisers want to spend the extra $76,000 per ad for House? HIMYM gets nearly as many 18-49 viewers as House in the same time slot, yet only charges $141,000 per ad slot. (All these numbers come from the 10/18/10 Advertising Age online article, by the way.) I know these ad rates came from *projected* ratings for the fall season, but it’s clear that House is underperforming.

    I share your concern that a relatively small group of people can have so much of an effect on the TV ratings. I remember reading somewhere – perhaps it was on the Nielsen site – that these people were (supposedly) carefully selected using a range of criteria in order to give a fair representation of the viewing public. Unfortunately for me, they don’t reflect my tastes in TV; I only watch 4 or 5 of the Top 25 shows. I’ll take an outstanding show like PBS’s Sherlock any day over DWTS! (I know that PBS isn’t included in the ratings, but I’m using Sherlock as an example.) I don’t understand why people watch DWTS, but I do know why I am not watching House.

  • ruthinor

    NCIS, which I am a big fan of, skews towards an older viewing audience. So while it has far more total viewers than House, the numbers in the age group 18-49 are not that much greater than those of House. I believe that “Dancing With the Stars” is the most popular show on TV now. Perhaps all those other shows are helped by the fact that they are not competing against it. Even with that, I believe that House remains the most popular procedural on FOX. Given the competition, a bet lots of folks are opting to use DVR and/or watch House later on USA, or on their computers.

    Frankly, I’ve never understood how a ratings service could extrapolate from the few people they are monitoring to the vast audience they don’t follow. There must be certain kinds of people who would allow themselves to be monitored in the first place. I wonder if they really represent the country as a whole.

  • Hyacinth

    Kaliera, if oversaturation is a factor, how can you explain NCIS still getting nearly 20 million viewers a week on CBS when it airs constantly on the USA Network? CSI is always on cable channels, as are Criminal Minds and Grey’s Anatomy. All of those shows do better than House in the ratings.

    I used to love House so much that I would watch it live AND tape it to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I would never have considered putting off viewing a new episode for an extra *minute*, let alone watching it a whole *week* later or at some unspecified future date when the episode rolled around on cable.

    I definitely agree that there are many factors involved in why the show’s ratings are declining. Interviewing a ratings guru is a good start, but he could really only explain the mechanics. It’s too bad that we can’t interview the Emmy committee to see why the show wasn’t nominated this past season. We could interview national critics to find out why they haven’t put House in their Top 10 lists for several seasons. If *they* feel the quality of the show is not up to the original standards, then it’s quite possible that many viewers feel the same way and have stopped watching.

  • Kaleira–that’s absolutely another factor–oversaturation. It’s everywhere!

    Lo–Is that what I said? Or were you talking about someone else. This interview was many pages long and Seidman attributed the ratings to entire constellation of reasons (and possible reasons). To attribute House’s ratings this season to any one thing is overly simplistic. It’s complex, as both Seidman and I said.

  • Lo

    Are you really gonna try blaming the 34% drop in the 18-49 crowd because people are too stupid to realize that House changed days/times slots YEARS AGO!!!!! is that what you’re trying to say?

  • Kaliera

    As someone who works in the industry, I find the constant debate over “will House survive” hysterical. House will survive as long as Hugh Laurie wants to do it.

    I also thought it odd that a major factor of ratings erosion was glossed over. I only started watching House this year – this summer in fact – and between USA, BRAVO, SLEUTH and syndication I have caught up on all but Season 6. My tivo was literally overwhelmed when I accidentally set it to tape all episodes regardless of channel or premieres.

    The truth is more likely that this constant availability of the show has lowered the urgency for new episodes. Unlike say Grey’s Anatomy which barely airs outside its primary timeslot.

    Finally – I also agree that storylines rarely drive ratings – although is has happened. I think the House/Cuddy relationship has been creatively good for those characters – and a natural progression that could not be ignored by the writers. Gregory House cannot stay stagnant. That too is a bore. For me what has been weaker this season has been the patients. Only Amy Irving has stood out so far, and last week’s Jennifer Grey story was just full of holes and the actress who played the daughter was terrible.

    So in summary, strong increases in ratings from Football and DWTS – both viewed more live, oversaturation from cable plays, and weak POtWs are all effecting House this year. And yet – you all have nothing to worry about until Season 8. After that – you might want to worry. Becuase Fox is the network that tried to keep Xfiles going without David Duchovny. Would they try to keep House without Hugh?

  • Greenhouse

    @Alex @Jess @Abby and some other commentors before : I think the point of the article was to show that it’s not as simple as that. Storylines aren’t the only things that affect the ratings. It’s a combination of storyline, actors, time and day of the week it’s airing, before/after/in competition with which other show, more commercial breaks and technology growth that make more and more people watch online, age of the show and a natural erosion etc…

    I would like to see the numbers of how many die hard fans there are compared to people who “just” watch the show. I would suppose die hard fans are a small percentage considering this is the most watched show in the world (don’t remember the source but it’s official).
    I would also suppose that people who come to this blog are die hard fans and therefore, we are not representative of what the majority of viewers feel considering storylines and all.

    If I can venture an opinion, if we were trying to explain the loss of ratings because of the storyline, we should try to look more at the general “feel” of the show and not the gain or loss of actors or a particular plot choice.
    To be more precise, for example, I think season 5 and 6 are more sombre than the others (absence of clinic scenes maybe?). Could that have driven away the more casual (casual not in the sens “irregular” but as in “nonchalant”) and I think more numerous viewers ?
    But hey, it’s just a rhetorical question as we’ll never get an answer to that question.

  • Abby

    I don’t understand why people say that season 6 was not a Huddy season. House spent the whole season dealing with his feelings for Cuddy, Wilson did little more with House than talk to him about Cuddy and Cuddy got her very own episode that was all about her, something no other secondary (non-House) character has had.

    House and Cuddy may not have been together as a couple but the season was definitely about their relationship.

    Plus Amber was gone, Cameron got booted and the patients were little more than anvils for the main characters (not to mention the quality of the medicine dropped lower).

    Anyone who didn’t like Huddy and had watched the show for the medical mysteries, the House/Wilson relationship or anything about Amber or Cameron would have been unhappy the way the show was going. Seeing Huddy in action this season while the medical cases are once again minimized would have confirmed that it’s time for them to move on which is why the numbers for this season dropped.

    But it started in season 6.

  • Jess

    I’m really curious to see how low the ratings will go because of this stupid huddy arc and how long the sponsors will put up with it.

    @Alex Come on, JM has nothing to do with the ratings going down the hill. They dumbed the show in order to have huddy and now they’re paying for it.

  • Alex

    You can bet one of the reasons for the drop in House’s ratings the last two seasons is Jennifer Morrison’s departure. Many, many of her fans have stopped watching the show.

  • Hyacinth

    Wunderbar777 said: “The drop in “House’s” ratings saddens me, but I sincerely do not think it has anything to do with the House/Cuddy storyline – statistics have shown that the majority of viewers have been waiting for this for a very long time…”

    Wunderbar, I would be interested to know the source of your statistics. I had not realized that it was counted somewhere officially.

  • Yeah I meant

    “So I just guess that if networks end up broadcasting the episodes with more commercials on the internet,”

    Sorry for the typo

  • Idk if it has been said already but as a foreigner who watches House every Tuesday mornings (jetlag!) I would like to add a few things here.

    There was a question raised about whether or not American viewers would be able to suffer through the commercial breaks while watching on the internet. I believe that anyway, there will still be a huge amount of websites (megavideo, zshare) that will upload the episodes without the commercial breaks. Hulu is only available in the US (and also maybe in England… Idk, I’m french lol) and so most of us catch up on this kind of websites. So I just guess that if networks end up broadcasting the episodes with the commercials, Americans will start watching the shows just like foreigners do. And that’s bad ’cause watching that way doesn’t matter for the ratings ;).

  • tessy

    lost quality, lost viewers.

  • Delia_Beatrice

    @Orange450 (#13) and everybody else who cannot imagine life without “House”:

    I know exactly what you mean. However, personally, i am working my way towards accepting that. I feel like this season has helped me with that – i feel like his (and our) struggles have been rewarded and that his journey has the chance for some sort of (slightly) positive ending

    I do have insane fears regarding the end, though. I only hope that it will allow me to rewatch “House”, for the rest of my life, with joy and sweet nostalgia, celebrating his humanity and their love – instead of mourning for them.

  • Delia_Beatrice

    @Barbara: THANK YOU very, very much for your answer.
    I am very unfamiliar with the subject and i appreciate your point of view immensely – especially since it’s what i’ve been wanting to hear:))))

    I obviously agree fully to everything you wrote. I have said it so many times, i am so full of admiration and even pride at TPTB for having the artistic integrity and courage and backbone to address House’s journey in a veridical and interesting manner.
    They chose creative value, verticality and chalenges, instead of freezing in a formulaic equation (in regard to the character, because i agree that the general formula stayed the same), that wouldn’t have allowed House to grow or his story to be explored properly.

    However, i too am saddened by the drop in ratings, simply because i think they deserve more recognition and all the success in the world. I cannot but join the collective hope that the show carries on till its logical and natural final point – and may that be “with a bang, not a whimper”.

    By the way, idiotic question: if i watch “House” live via satellite ( i live in Eastern Europe), i take it I don’t count in any sort of ratings, right?:(

  • Nadia

    Thks for the article.
    Also I want to remind everyone to vote for the House cast at the people’s Choice awards including LISA EDELSTEIN for best TV drama actress.
    Thank You

  • wunderbar777

    Thank you for your fascinating article, Barbara (and I’m also very much enjoying your book as well). It demystified a topic that I frankly never really understood the complex logistics behind it, esp. today because of modern technology.

    The drop in “House’s” ratings saddens me, but I sincerely do not think it has anything to do with the House/Cuddy storyline – statistics have shown that the majority of viewers have been waiting for this for a very long time, and “cheesy love scenes” are obviously not dominating airtime – it’s still a show about based on medical mysteries, and more importantly, human relationships. As I have consistently said, people are constantly evolving and changing – noone is the same person that they were 7 years ago, and that’s just called life.

    I wish for “House” to continue as long as it remains as vital as it is at the moment. It would be very sad to see it “slowly fade away,” but I do not think the producer/writers/Hugh Laurie would ever let that happen.

  • maya

    Made for an interesting read. Feel like less of an ignoramus when it comes to how TV ratings work.

    I suppose we’ll have to wait till Feb/March of next year to know for sure if House will have a season 8? Can’t imagine what would make the ratings steadily tank from now till then, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

    Till then, I am sure the “great ratings debate” in the fandom will rage on unabated. LOL. I, for one, will certainly be following the ratings for the show with more interest from now on.

    Thanks for doing this, Barbara!

  • Cynthiaanne (hiyacinth)

    Thankyou very much for the article, always interesting to learn more of how the viewer ratings work, i hope we continue to have solid viewer ratings her in the UK, i really want to watch House’s journey to the end, would hate for Sky not to renew rights to air new seasons.

  • Kim F

    Thank you for that wonderful foray into ratings and such especially with House since it seems to be a hot debate especially with the whole House/Cuddy arc going on this season. I know a lot of people that stopped watching House or were disgruntled because of last season, not because of the lack of House/Cuddy, but because of the show’s inconsistency and failed plot attempts. It’s great to see House ‘changing’ or moving on as best as he can, although the writer’s do have a formula (ptow, medical puzzles…), it’s even better that almost all the character’s have had growth and haven’t remained the same. Also, if you do manage to interview one of the writer’s or even Katie Jacobs, any way you can possibly ask them to bring clinic back! That was probably the best!
    If anything, I think that the House/Cuddy (I loathe the word ‘Huddy’) is keeping House is the game because they’re finally together and its like a car accident, we all want to ‘rubberneck’ and see what’s gonna happen. I trust you in saying that the next episodes are going to be better, since lately the patients haven’t been very engaging with the exception of ‘Unwriten.’
    Is it Nov. 8th yet?

  • DOB1234

    Very nice article. I think some House fans have argued about most of the various aspects of the ratings game in the past, but it’s nice to see everything brought together in one article. I learned a number of new things here, including the fact that there are still people out there with little black(?) Nielsen boxes and buttons to push.

    I must also echo the words of Orange450 in that I can’t imagine life without Gregory House, MD. Was glad to hear that barring a sudden collapse in the ratings we should have at least one more season.

  • Orange450

    Thank you for a fascinating perspective on a subject that I’ve never understood until now!

    When I read the words describing House as closer to the end of its run than its beginning, I got a cold chill down my spine. And yet, you’re absolutely right, and its inevitable end is beginning to breath down our collective necks. What will we do when House is over? I can’t imagine life without it – and yes, I too was in that prized 18-49 demographic when the series began, but am no longer.

  • Delia: I think there is “normal” ratings erosion, but also dips due to the time change, the heavier competition, the fact that more people watch DWTS “live” than record it…

    The “formula” is still the same “formula”–vis a vis the patient of the week. House as a character is attempting change, but the fundamental vision of the show has been to track the journey of this complex character. It is his journey, his challenges, etc.

    That has not changed. People leave the show’s viewership, but people also come into it. Maybe in the prime demo, maybe not.

    I believe the lifecycle fo the series will bring it to a good and logical end, maybe the end of season eight–maybe later. My only hope is that the series ends on its own terms, not the network’s.

  • Delia_Beatrice

    @Barbara, i congratulate you for putting together this article. Is is not only very interesting and useful, but it’s also gracefully dealing with calculations so complicated, i am tied up in knots trying to understand them…

    Is it OK to ask you what you think about all this, Barbara? I am worried, i admit. Do you think, like HouseFan (#4), that storylines are not to be blamed for ratings drop? And if so, then is it reasonable to assume it’s just the fact the show has been around for quite a while, and the time it airs is not the best?

    If we are to find a common factor for seasons 6 and 7, it’s what Barbara said: House has changed/tried to change and thus, the essential “formula” of the show has shifted. Viewers might have been lost on account of this.
    On the other hand, viewers would have been lost, too, if House’s story would have been frozen and the character would have been stagnant for all these years.

  • Hugh for prez!

    Hmmm i only recently learn’t (my bad) that writers have to take into account commercial breaks and therefore write to try to hit the highs and lows appropriately with breaks in mind.

    Now i record House cos i hate watching ads, and do find sometimes the rhythm and emotional pace of some episodes to be downright odd. So even though i understand the logic and necessity of the way writers have to write episodes, it just ticks me off to see my favorite program’s storylines so twisted.

    Sigh..i know i will get a lecture about living in the real world but had to get my vent out there.

    Viva House! Season 7 is still messing with my head cos whilst its er “nice” to see House trying to change, its also rather painful to see him subsume his normal behaviour for the Cuddy thing.

  • Pawing is good 🙂

    Jerome–good point. I actually posted an earlier piece on Rubicon to discuss the cable ratings game a bit. And advocate for that “bubble” show to be renewed! So this was actually the second article I culled from “poring” over the interview. I have also learned that having an interview of that length professionally transcribed is well worth the cost!

  • With 17 pages, I’m sure there were plenty of ‘horse’ bits and you needed to find the best ‘zebras’ to showcase in your article. 🙂

  • Or we could go with pawing!

  • Alan–thank “U”-trying to multi-task while commenting. But I really did feel like I was “pouring” rather than “poring”–it was, after all, 17 pages.

  • Dear Madame Editor:

    Please correct “pouring” in comment #3 to “poring.” Thank you.

    Yours truly,
    Mr. Punctilious

  • HouseFan

    This is very interesting! I really understand the ratings a little bit better, thank you for this.

    I’m not english native speaker so I’m sorry for my mistakes, but I was wondering this:

    if, according to Robert Seidman, we can maybe consider huddy as one of the causes for ratings falling, then we HAVE to consider the NOT-HUDDY storylines of Season 6 as a cause of eason 6’s bigger fall of ratings. It seems only fair! 🙂

    My point is: I don’t believe a storyline has affected or is affecting the ratings at all.

    Not in the “hilson season 6”, and not in this Huddy season.

  • Thanks guys. It took me more than a week of pouring through a 17-page interview transcript to pull this together. It was a fascinating opportunity to get into the head of such an expert.

    One of the biggest complaints about House is that it’s now broken up into six acts, which is very disruptive to the episode’s flow. That makes (me at least) avoid the breaks at all costs. Who knew?

  • This article was extremely interesting. Thank you so much for breaking it down! I am troubled, though, for the future of television.
    I have had a DVR since January 2005. In the last six years I haven’t watched commercials at all. I know commercials pay for TV, but at what point does that start to hurt the quality? We’re getting there. Look at how much of each episode is now eaten up by commercials, versus a few years ago.
    When networks started streaming their shows online, there were no commercials. Then there was one commercial. Now there are multiple commercials. I can’t stand it. I’d rather pay TiVo and Amazon the $1.99 to download the episode rather than watch it for free with 3 minutes of commercials.
    The problem with pay or play is that cable bills are currently high enough, higher than most people would like them to be, certainly. Perhaps if you only paid for what you watch, we could reach some sort of compromise. I get hundreds of channels I NEVER turn to.
    The television landscape is changing in general. It certainly doesn’t matter to me what time or day a show is in. Even for something like last spring’s Lost series finale I waited the amount of time would be taken up by commercials after it started before I began watching it. And I know I’m not alone in this opinion.
    Commercials annoy me to death, and I know they don’t do that to everyone, but isn’t enough enough? We’re slammed with ads all day every day. I’d love a television landscape (like HBO or Showtime) not dominated by them. I think some people would even be willing to pay a bit more to get that.

  • sunnysea

    Thank you very much for this article! I found everything he said of interest. I might even understand the ratings game a little better :))