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TV Lexicon: Nielsen Ratings

By Wikipedia

When TV viewers or entertainment professionals in the United States mention "ratings" they are generally referring to Nielsen Ratings, a system developed by the New York City-based firm Nielsen Media Research to determine which shows television viewers watch at what times. Other ratings systems include those developed by Arbitron for radio programming and the Q Score for general markets.

Note: We have ratings for the top 30 television shows for each season. They are below the prime time schedule on each season's page (here's 1974, for example).

The system as it exists today was developed in the early 1960s by Arthur Nielsen, and has since been the primary source of audience measurement information in the television industry. Since television as a business makes money by selling audiences to advertisers, the Nielsen Television Ratings are the single most important element in determining advertising rates, schedules, and program content.

The company is owned by Dutch conglomerate VNU and recently relocated the majority of its production operations from its birthplace on Patricia Ave. in Dunedin, Florida to its newer Brooker Creek Global Technology and Information Center in Oldsmar, Florida.

Measuring ratings

Nielsen Television Ratings statistics are gathered in two ways: one is by extensive use of surveys, where viewers in various demographics are asked to keep a written record (called a diary) of what shows they watch at what times. The other is by the use of a limited number of Nielsen Boxes, which are small computers hooked up to a television in a home, which electronically records its activities and transmits them nightly to Nielsen. These Nielsen Boxes allow market researchers to study television viewing habits on a minute to minute basis, seeing at exactly what moment a viewer changed channels or turned off their TV. Additional use of direct reporting devices (called people meters) allow the company to gather overnight statistics in specific geographic areas.

Criticism of Ratings Systems

There is some public critique regarding accuracy and potential bias within Nielsen's rating system.

Since viewers are aware of being part of the Nielsen sample, it can lead to bias in recording and viewing habits. Statistics gathered by electronic reporting are often dramatically different from those gathered by viewer self-reporting or surveys. Opponents of government funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting argue that viewers intentionally over-report the viewing of PBS. Opponents of Fox News argue the same thing.

In 2004, the Nielsen introduced a new system to measure local ratings in the largest market areas using its People Meters instead of the traditional paper diaries, which was criticized by News Corporation and other cultural advocates as resulting in a bias toward misreporting minority viewing. Many argue that commercial television under-represents minorities, which can lead to a de-facto discrimination in employment against minority actors and writers.

Another criticism of the Nielsen ratings system is its failure to have a realistic system for measurement of television audience in environments outside the home, such as college dormitories, transport terminals, bars, and other public places where television is frequently viewed, often by large numbers of people in a common setting. The system is notoriously inaccurate at gauging the viewership of households with multiple televisions, leading to substantially lower ratings for shows geared toward younger viewers. Also, the rise of "time-shifting" through the use of VCRs, Digital Video Recorders (DVR), and downloading episodes from the Internet have also not, critics claim, been sufficiently addressed by the system. The criticism hardly matters to those who subscribe to the ratings system as such programs usually have their ads edited out and those viewers are thus of little consequence for them.

In February 2004, TiVo and Nielsen reached an agreement to provide information on DVR usage to the television industry. TiVo ratings reporting began in January, 2005, with other DVR providers expected to join soon.

Annual top-rated shows

Each year, one program (or, in some cases, a tie) earns the highest average Nielsen rating for the corresponding television season. Here are past record-holders:

  • 1950-1951–Texaco Star Theater
  • 1951-1952–Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts
  • 1952-1955, 1956-1958–I Love Lucy
  • 1955-1956–The $64,000 Question
  • 1958-1961–Gunsmoke
  • 1961-1962–Wagon Train
  • 1962-1964–The Beverly Hillbillies
  • 1964-1967–Bonanza
  • 1967-1968–The Andy Griffith Show
  • 1968-1970–Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In
  • 1970-1971–Marcus Welby, M.D.
  • 1971-1976–All in the Family
  • 1976-1977–Happy Days
  • 1977-1979–Laverne and Shirley
  • 1979-1980, 1982-1983, 1991-1993–60 Minutes
  • 1980-1982, 1983-1984–Dallas
  • 1984-1985–Dynasty
  • 1985-1989–The Cosby Show
  • 1989-1990–Roseanne
  • 1990-1991–Cheers
  • 1993-1994–Home Improvement
  • 1994-1995, 1997-1998–Seinfeld
  • 1995-1997, 1998-1999–ER
  • 1999-2000–Who Wants To Be A Millionaire
  • 2000-2001–Survivor: The Australian Outback
  • 2001-2002–Friends
  • 2002-2004–CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
  • 2004-2005–American Idol


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It uses material from this Wikipedia article, which is probably more up to date than ours (retrieved August 12, 2005).

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