SERIOUSLY: Networks misspelling shows to get better ratings is a thing

That’s pretty low. The 2016-2017 broadcast year was the worst on record, with the top rated shows performing worse than most cancelled shows from the 1990s. Let me say that a different way. In 1997, a show with a 2.5 rating would have been canceled. In 2017 it’s the top rated scripted show on TV. No I am not kidding.

So obviously these numbers aren’t great, and broadcasters should be worried, since ratings numbers translate into advertiser dollars. You would think that maybe they would, I don’t know, do a better job but apparently that’s not as easy as cheating.

The Verge today published an article claiming that networks have been deliberately misspelling show titles in order to boost ratings. Here’s how it works.

(1) Average ratings are used to determine advertising rates.
(2) Average ratings are the average (I know, duh) of the ratings of all the airings of a show.
(3) Sometimes shows air on days when people aren’t watching TV, like July 4th.
(4) and this is the important one On days when ratings are going to be low, networks deliberately misspell the names of shows in their listings.

If you don’t want a bad ratings day to count against, you, put NBC Nitely News on the schedule instead of NBC Nightly News. That way the show doesn’t count toward the average, because “technically,” NBC Nightly News didn’t air.

And I did not just make up that example. Supposedly that’s exactly what happened last Memorial Day. ABC and CBS are in on the game too and seriously this is ridiculous.

I have to go off on a little tangent here. I am a big believer in television and print news. These are, usually, journalists of the highest integrity and now more than ever we need that in the world. But when stuff like this happens it certainly doesn’t help the media’s reputation for being unscrupulous and untrustworthy. No one wins.

I don’t blame the Nielsen people for not realizing this sooner, but I will blame them if they don’t make some sort of effort to address it. I know that this could turn into an escalating war where Nielsen keeps trying to invent new ways to automatically find these tricks and networks come up with increasingly innovative ways to trick Nielsen. Or, they could just do something else completely, like hire real people until the point when AI can do the job. In the meantime, network news departments should be incredibly embarrassed. This is really below them.

I am going to try to follow up with this story in a few months and I hope that I can report that the practice of misspellings has ended and that news ratings, although low, are at least honest.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.