Sunday , March 3 2024
What do the TV ratings mean to viewers and to the television series we love? TV by the Numbers founder Robert Seidman tells all in an exclusive interview with Blogcritics.

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

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,, 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 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!

About Barbara Barnett

A Jewish mother and (young 🙃) grandmother, Barbara Barnett is an author and professional Hazzan (Cantor). A member of the Conservative Movement's Cantors Assembly and the Jewish Renewal movement's clergy association OHALAH, the clergy association of the Jewish Renewal movement. In her other life, she is a critically acclaimed fantasy/science fiction author as well as the author of a non-fiction exploration of the TV series House, M.D. and contributor to the book Spiritual Pregnancy. She Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (

Check Also

Film Fest

Q&A with the Filmmakers of ‘Film Fest’

When filmmaking moves from making to selling, you may find yourself at a 'Film Fest.' It could be funny.