Fun With Numbers

Every weekday morning when I wake up, sitting in my email inbox are the TV ratings from the night before. It is enlightening and horrifying at the same time.

It hasn’t always been this way. In the not too distant past, ratings were taken a few times a year, during the ‘sweeps’ period. That was nerve wracking in its own insidious way.

The amount of time I dwell on the numbers is often dependent on how we’re doing. During the bad times, I didn’t look at all. Too depressing. It’s probably the same thing for CNBC. Who wants to watch if they’re only talking about the money you’re losing.

Right now, we’re in moderately good times. We’re not #1, but we’re moving in the right direction – and we’re watching others who probably don’t want to be looking at the numbers on a daily basis.

Ratings are based on 15 minute blocks. So, a one hour show will have an aggregate rating made up of the four quarter hours. It can be fascinating to track those quarter hour numbers – but misleading. Even in a market the size of Connecticut, if a few people with ‘meters’ get a phone call or need to go to the bathroom at the wrong time, a significant chunk of your ratings go away.

A recent day had 440 households making up the entire ratings universe. During our early evening news there were probably 175-250 households with their TV’s on, divided by all the channels you can get. Now you see where the horrifying comes from.

When ratings go down, TV stations and networks blame methodology. Could be – I don’t know. When ratings go up, it’s sharp programming.

After the Super Bowl, the folks at Tivo publicized the fact that the Janet Jackson / Justin Timberlake moment was the most re-watched moment in TV. That means Tivo knows what everyone’s watching, every second! I would guess cable companies can do the same with addressable cable boxes (though there are more serious regulatory restrictions placed on cable companies).

If we can have accurate, massively sampled, instantaneous TV ratings, will we be better or worse off? There’s already lots of concern that TV plays for ratings – and to a great extent it does.

Imagine TV programmers could watch their numbers second by second. I shudder to think. There’s probably no putting this genie back in the bottle. Soon, we’ll have to live with it.

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