Harder and harder to measure TV viewership
This publicity image released by CBS shows Jonny Lee Miller, right, and Lucy Liu in a scene from the series, "Elementary." (AP Photo/CBS, Giovanni Rufino)
NEW YORK (AP) — Every Tuesday, the Nielsen company publishes a popularity ranking of broadcast television programs that has served as the industry's report card dating back to when most people had only three networks to choose from.
And every week, that list gets less and less meaningful.
With DVRs, video on demand, game consoles and streaming services, tablets and smartphones, the way people watch television is changing and the industry is struggling to keep on top of it all. Even the idea of "watching television" is in flux. Are you "watching TV" when you stream an episode of "Downton Abbey" on a tablet?
Nielsen, which has long had a virtual monopoly on the audience statistics that drive a multi-billion dollar industry, last week took an important step toward accounting for some of the changes. Starting in September, Nielsen will begin measuring viewership through broadband devices like game consoles for the first time. Right now those numbers go uncounted.
"The ratings are a very one-dimensional look at what is happening," said Alan Wurtzel, top research executive at NBC Universal, "and we now live in a very multi-dimensional world."
Nielsen's weekly rankings count people who watch a broadcast TV show live or on their DVRs that same day through midnight on the West Coast. To be sure, this is still how most people watch television. CBS didn't need anything other than live numbers to know that its new reality show "The Job" was a flop, and canceled it a week ago after two episodes.
Through separate, less publicized rankings, Nielsen can also track how many people see a program on a time-shifted basis. One ranking, which measures live viewership plus those who watch on DVR or video on demand within three days of the original airing, is what the industry uses to set advertising rates. Other rankings measure those who watch within a week, or even within a month.
Those numbers can present a much different picture of a program's popularity.
During the last week of January, for example, ABC's "Modern Family" ranked No. 12 for the week with 10.8 million viewers if you count just the people who watched on Wednesday, Jan. 23. But within seven days, 15.9 million people had seen the episode, enough to make it the third most popular show of the week behind two "American Idol" episodes. Fox's "The Following" finished a modest 15th place initially, but its audience jumped by 45 percent over the next week, enough to lift the show to fourth place.