TV Ratings are a regular feature here at Blast, and considering the subject matter, it at times gets heated. We make predictions (some of them right, i.e., “Undercovers” getting canceled) and some of them wrong (“Fringe” being renewed) that are based on the television ratings, but they really anger some readers.
So why is this? Why such intense disagreement over numbers that should be read fairly easily?
Simple. Because most people don’t understand how television ratings line up with renewals and cancellations; they don’t know how the ratings system works, and what it represents.
The two most common television ratings reported are total viewers, and the rating a show attains in the 18-49 demographic. Each rating point corresponds to a set number of people, generally between 1.2-1.4 million people. So a 2.5 rating is closer to 3.5 million viewers than 2.5.
The total number of viewers is self-explanatory. But many fans and viewers place importance on the total numbers; this is where they go wrong.
Total viewers are a great statistic that many youth-challenged shows champion. But it’s the 18-49 demographic that is the most important representation in viewership, and the greatest bellwether as to whether a show is renewed or not.
Take “NCIS” and “Grey’s Anatomy” for example. Both are solid hits, and some of the top shows on television. Last week, “Grey’s” drew 10 million viewers, while “NCIS” drew nearly 20 million viewers. So “NCIS” blew “Grey’s” out the water right?
Wrong. They had nearly identical 18-49 viewership, drawing in the high 3 of a demo (slightly more than 5 million viewers in the demo.) That means that half of “Grey’s” viewership is in the ad-friendly demo, while only a quarter of “NCIS” is.
Why doesn’t total viewership matter? Because television shows run on ad revenue, or the money sold to advertisers for the commercials that air 8.5 minutes per half hour, or 17 minutes per hour.
These ad spots are sold based on viewership in the 18-49 demographic, the region that advertisers have targeted the most, and thus pay for. So while “NCIS” is watched by many more total people than “Grey’s,” the ABC show still commands more in ad revenue and is considered a bigger hit.
The difference in viewers versus ad-friendly viewers is a clever trick the networks have been pulling on the general public for years. They claim “X number of viewers” watch their show, knowing that its a meaningless number. It confuses fans and viewers.
Take this season of “Blue Bloods.” Someone criticized an article at Blast giving the show limited chances at survival, claiming that “Blue Bloods” was the most watched new show of the season.
This is correct only in the most true sense. At times, “Blue Bloods” will eclipse 12 million viewers, which would make it the most watched new show, yes. However, it generally draws approximately a 1.6 in the demo, approximately 2.2 million viewers. That means that only 18% of “Blue Bloods” viewers are meaningful to the network in terms of ad sales.
In terms of cancelation, another popular ratings show has come up with a fairly consistent theory that networks cancels the shows that are significantly less than the network’s 18-49 average — usually shows that are more than 20% less than the network average.
In that logic, each network has its own range of what is acceptable and not. For instance, most shows on NBC average less than a 2.0 in the demo, so some of those shows must be renewed, while a show on ABC, NBC and Fox that averages less than a 2.0 in the demo would almost certainly be canceled.
NBC aside, there is a general accepted range (for this season) as to what is successful versus unsuccessful. As network television ratings decline, each year the bar is lowered.
This year, anything above a 4.0 is a megahit. Shows in the 3.0 range are solid to successful. A show in the high 2.0 range is likely safe. As you go to 2.5 and below, it gets murkier, as the low 2.0 is the danger zone for most nets (aside from NBC). Anything below a 2.0 on a network not named NBC is almost a guaranteed cancelation.
Examples? “Modern Family” and “Glee” each average more than a 4.0 in the demo, i.e., mega-hits. “Criminal Minds” averages approximately a 3.6, so it borderlines successful to hit. “How I Met Your Mother” averages in the low 3 range; successful but not a huge hit. “Private Practice” averages a 2.7. Solid, not a hit, but not getting canceled. “Brothers and Sisters” averages a 2.4; its hovering between renewal and cancelation. And “V?” It averaged under a 2.0 and is virtually a goner.