Television ratings in the U.S. used to be fairly straightforward. Nielsen would measure the number of households tuning in to a given program at a given time across the country, and issue viewership statistics the next day. Advertisers could in turn target the most popular programs for their product placements.
Today, there are a number of factors that, by “hard science” standards, would render the ratings that television stations live and die by completely irrelevant.
Below are a few factors that have influenced television viewership, and the measurement thereof, over the past 50 years.
1. “On” vs. “Watched”. Primetime programming used to be the evening’s event, in which the entire household participated. Once the program was done, the TV was turned off.
Today, it is more to turn the TV on and let it run all evening- the programming has become just white noise in the background. Does a program (or an advertisement) that is “on” count the same as a program that is “watched”? This article discusses how women in particular are paying less attention to TV programming than before, although that is not necessarily reflected in the number of hours the TV is on.
2. Breakdown of the conventional family structure. Under the traditional American model of the 1950s and 1960s, a “household” was typically a father, mother, and two or three children (under the same roof at any given time). Families watched friendly-family shows such as “The Ed Sullivan Show” together. The predictability of this structure allowed for greater accuracy in the ratings.
Today, the family structure is not nearly as definable. People are single well into their 30s, and may be watching a program alone. Or one “household” may in fact be a flock of 20-somethings gathered to watch “Sex and the City”. And how can you account for the advertising potential of an NCAA basketball game watched in a sports bar, where one TV might be reaching 50 people or more? Particularly in urban areas like NYC, accurately determining viewership is increasingly difficult.
3. New technology. The availability of television programming on iTunes, Netflix, DVR, and DVD greatly diminishes the effect of advertisements placed on these programs during their initial airing. The advertisements aired during Mad Men are not replayed when the episode is watched on amc.com. Shows such as Weeds, Dexter, and Californication, all of which air on premium cable networks, have a much greater following than their initial viewership indicates. For advertisers, this means that they have to consider advertising for all possible media where their target audiences may be watching their programs.
While traditional advertising has perhaps become more difficult to track as a result of its integration with newer technology, statistics regarding newer media are increasingly available.
Google, for example, has consumer habits and behavior boiled down to a plethora of graphs, charts, and percentages to target very specific audiences. http://www.google.com/analytics/tour.html. Google is the friendly (so far) Big Brother who knows exactly what we’re doing on the web, and exactly who we are.
Unlike television, which is a more passive medium, the internet is based on user action. One website doesn’t flow into the next if you leave it on your screen for a half hour. The action of clicking a button to take you to a new link, or typing an address in the browser, is easily measurable. If you go to a new page and an ad is on that page, you will see the ad. If you never go to that page, you’ll never see the ad.
There is less room for the “it was on but I didn’t pay attention to it and was therefore unaffected by it” scenario.
What I Learned:
Diversify. To be most effective, even traditional media advertisers will have to go digital to reach their entire desired viewership.
Do your own research. The Nielsen ratings may be the “gold standard” for viewership, but their accuracy is definitely questionable. Market research and “how did you hear about us” surveys will ultimately supplement information on the impact of your advertising efforts.