The REAL Truth About TV Ratings and Scifi Shows

PlayItGrand January 20, 2011 5 Comments »

This afternoon, SyFy’s GM and Senior Vice President of Syfy Digital, Craig Engler posted on the popular blog, In one of what appears to be several upcoming posts under the header “TV 101”, Mr. Engler gives a thorough explanation of the Nielsen Rating System, how it works, why it works, and why it matters so much to the networks while the true count of viewers of a show is never taken into account. While Mr. Engler pointed out many facts, he also made several statements to back up his arguments that are erroneous and offensive to sci-fi fans.

The first statement that really caught my eye is right in Engler’s opening paragraph, and it was a huge turn off.

After all, sci-fi fans are tech savvy and don’t watch live TV shows on TV … they DVR them, they buy them on iTunes and they illegally download them from BitTorrent. If the archaic Nielsen system only took these viewers into account, many sci-fi TV shows would have massive ratings and last many more seasons.

Right there. He says it. Engler is BLAMING sci-fi fans and the way they watch TV for the cancellation of their favorite shows. Really? We are the bad guys? Rather than modernizing with the viewers, SyFy, whose very name screams tech savvy, is choosing to ignore and disregard what admittedly could mean higher ratings and go with a more archaic system. Wise up.

Engler also contends that you can see the ratings of a show reflected in how much people talk about it and what they have to say. If a show has poor ratings, fans are more likely to be talking about it negatively, and vice versa. The same is true of a show that is doing well in the ratings. As Engler says,

Take V, FlashForward and The Walking Dead, for example. All of them were highly anticipated and started out with HUGE ratings. Then the ratings for each show pretty much mirrored what fans thought about them. FlashForward was canceled, V barely hung on for a second season, and The Walking Dead grew its audience and was renewed for another season with more episodes than the first. Based on the consensus of viewer opinions I read online, that’s just what I would have expected.

If that really was true, you would think that networks should pay more attention to fans, right? If the opinion of those who watch the show so closely matches the ratings, why not listen? I have one very good example. Stargate Universe. If it really was true that ratings mirror the fan’s opinion, and SyFy paid the slightest bit of attention to that, they would know that even some of the toughest skeptics about SGU were changing their minds and saying that the show was finally finding it’s stride this season. Likewise, despite a very vocal fan base, SyFy cancelled Caprica because of poor ratings. The fact that the ratings for both shows were badly hurt by SyFy’s own mismanagement is a whole other issue.

Furthermore, Engler does not go into a very important difference until someone asks him about cable channels versus broadcast channels. Two of his three examples, V and FlashForward, were on broadcast networks, meaning you don’t have to have cable to watch them. AMC’s The Walking Dead is on a cable channel like SyFy, meaning that you’ve got to have the extra money in your budget for cable or you won’t get to see it on TV. From what Engler says, it’s clear that AMC listened to their audience! The number of fans grew, the fact was somehow reflected in the ratings, so AMC ordered another longer season of the series. Sounds like SyFy should take a page out of AMC’s book. Oh look! They are both NBC/Universal channels! Wow!

I say “somehow” with such emphasis because I understand how Nielsen ratings are taken, and I don’t for a moment think that the ratings for The Walking Dead grew because some existing fans of the series, by some random miricle, managed to get a Nielsen box in their house. It’s far more likely that some people who had boxes in their house either heard about the show from people that they know, read about it online or in the newspaper, or were just channel surfing when they decided to check it out. Some got hooked, and those few people were counted as many within the ratings system because that is was Nielsen rating’s sampling does. The problem is that the system still isn’t counting all of the friends, family, online writers, newspaper critics, and everyday fans that were already watching the show and don’t have Nielsen boxes!

Shortly after making the above erroneous statement, Engler says,

The Nielsens aren’t perfect, but no system trying to measure what 100 million+ households are watching ever will be. Even if you could precisely measure what was on every TV at all times of the day or night, you wouldn’t be able to figure out if the person watching them is paying attention, or how many people are watching that TV, or even if anyone is watching. What you need is a system that’s as reasonably accurate as you can expect, and that everyone on all sides of the TV business accepts as a standard. For now, it’s Nielsen ratings.

I ask you, in all honesty, are you in the habit of turning on your TV and cable system and then leaving the room for an hour or more at a time? Do you like to fall asleep while watching a sci-fi adventure or drama show? I certainly am not, and I find the suggestion that people would actually do that on a large enough scale to be a concern to be extremely insulting.

Science fiction fans are not often casual watchers. You have to have a desire to believe in what you are seeing to embrace it. Something in it strikes a cord with you, peaks your interest, and that need to know what’s going to happen keeps you glued to your seat. When the show is over it’s still with you in some way, and what it inspires in you may lead you to create things and attend events. Science fiction fans are not idle souls.

This idea that ratings would be ruined by people tuning in and then leaving the room or falling asleep is just one of many pathetic excuses why ratings can’t be counted in more ways other than Nielsen’s inadequate sampling system. Contrary to what Engler says, it’s far from impossible to count viewers with digital cable subscriptions, nor is it that impracticle. In fact with technology going it’s current direction – smart, internet connected TVs – the ability is fast approaching reality.

I am a Comcast digital cable subscriber. I always prefer to watch my shows live,  but sometimes if I miss it I will watch it OnDemand, or I will even watch an episode a second time through OnDemand. Comcast knows what signals are going out. They know what channels are most popular. It’s part of how they decide what channels to offer in their various cable packages. Several years ago Comcast took several of their cable channels and made them available on a higher package, including SyFy. They did that because they knew that enough people watched those channels enough that they could make more money by raising the rates to view those channels. If Comcast was then to collect demographic information on their subscribers, they would have a pretty accurate idea of what demographic was watching what shows. When we have internet connected TV’s and networked cable systems, the right use of software could make an accurate and wide polling of viewers pretty simple. It still wouldn’t be perfect. If a fan holds a viewing party at their house, Comcast would still only count one viewer. However, a whole lot more fans would be able to actually count in that almighty rating, instead of only being able to write and fight for the love of our shows just to be ignored.

In trying to help sci-fi fans learn why our beloved and brilliant shows get poor ratings, Craig Engler made critical mistakes. He underestimated the inteligence of TV viewers, blaming us for the failure of our favorite shows to make enough money, and he continued the tradition of making excuses for the Nielsen system’s flaws and how the network’s choose how their shows live or die. It just goes to show once again what SyFy actually thinks of science fiction lovers.

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  1. Françoise Macke (Fran)No Gravatar January 22, 2011 at 12:56 am - Reply

    Hello! personal opinion: No network not counting … What do the ads because they broadcast is not working that we viewers will be harmed! They only need to be more creative! I see that apparently no matter the country where we are we have the same problems!

  2. GreenEggsNSammNo Gravatar January 21, 2011 at 10:12 am - Reply

    I will give Engler this. He is taking the time to reply to many of the comments on the Blastr article and he’s providing pretty good information to answer viewers’ questions. It’s promoting a healthy dialogue and I respect him for that.

    The networks are counting are viewers who watch the commercials. One Blastr commenter mentioned the irony of “live” TV commercials being over inflated while web ads and commercials are under inflated and yet, viewers are ten times more likely to click on an ad they see online than they are to get off the couch and look up a product they see on TV. If advertisers were smart they would get creative and push more money towards online ads where they’re more likely to gain a consumer base and sell more product due to “instant gratification.” It’s time to update advertising tactics just like it’s time to update the Nielsen system.

    Taking ratings of web viewership will over inflate the number of viewers due to non-static IP addresses. Whereas Nielsen Ratings under skew the number of viewers. Neither is reliable…and yet networks prefer to under skew the numbers. Why don’t networks take an average of the two for a more accurate determination of viewership?

    Contrary to popular belief, when you do the research, look at the statistics and do the math, illegal downloading isn’t an issue when it comes to ratings. The percentage of illegal downloads is insignificant to the number of “live viewers.” The majority of illegal downloading occurs among viewers who are A) already watching the show and want to catch up on previous episodes that they can’t find online or OnDemand, B) viewers who are watching the show “live” and want to have the episodes to rewatch them later when DVDs are not available; or C) viewers in areas (countries) whose networks will never air the show or who will have to wait 6-12 months to see the show. No matter what the reason, and not to say that illegal downloading isn’t wrong, unethical, etc., illegal downloading in relation to ratings and viewership of a show is so insignificant in numbers that it doesn’t make enough of a difference in regards to a show’s viewership numbers to actually matter.

    And BTW Mr. Engler, Nielsen Ratings can account for DVR viewership. Just like illegal downloading, DVR viewership has become a network scapegoat when justifying the use of the old Nielsen system.

  3. Spacegypsy1No Gravatar January 20, 2011 at 11:32 pm - Reply

    Absolutely! Great report!

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