THROWBACK THURSDAY: Nielsen thought they could do it

Sad to say, not a lot has changed in four years. In 2013 I reported that Nielsen was finally ready to start tracking online viewing. (Sadly that article has been lost.) If you look at their web site, they say they’re actually doing it now. Except, no one ever hears about the ratings for streaming shows. It’s almost like maybe Nielsen is doing it but no one cares.

There was a time in this country when TV lived and died by Nielsen ratings. As far as I know that’s still true in traditional broadcast TV, although there isn’t any broadcaster who gets the kind of ratings he got 30 years ago. In fact today’s top rated shows would rank somewhere in the second half of the ratings if they played back in the 1980s.

What about streaming ratings? No one knows. Since broadcasters pay for ratings books, I’m guessing that streaming companies are being asked to as well, and they’re probably not doing it. After all, Netflix doesn’t need to sell commercials and even a service like Hulu which does sell commercials doesn’t need Nielsen to tell them who’s watching.

That’s the point… streaming TV companies don’t need some third party to gather data for them. Broadcasters do, since there’s no other way to tell who’s watching. And broadcasters aren’t always interested in the truth. As a group, they really do still think they’re back in the days of Friends or All in the Family, when up to a third of the country would be watching their shows at any given time. They’re the last group who would be interested in hearing that their market share is dropping faster than the price of 2016 calendars.

Where does that leave Nielsen? Nowhere, I guess, and that’s probably why we don’t hear a lot about them. When there is good news, like when NBC actually has a show people watch, you hear vague terms like “the hottest new show on TV” and you have to figure that’s based on some sort of ratings, but you don’t get data. It used to be that the data was expensive to get. It still is, but the big difference between today and the day I wrote that article back in 2013… is that no one cares.

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 9,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.