TV Lexicon: Nielsen Ratings
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,
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.
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
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
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