On Sunday night, The Walking Dead once again shattered cable TV ratings records by capturing over 17 million views and an 8.7 rating in the 18-49 demo. If you don’t know what that sentence means then, well, this is the column for you.
What are Nielsen ratings and how are they calculated?
Nielsen ratings are nothing more than a survey of viewing activity by a subset of the population, about 20,000 total households that participate. That data is then extrapolated to the entirety of the United States, and you get ratings. It used to be calculated for only live viewership but now includes ‘Live + Same Day’, to include anyone who watches a show on their DVR before the midnight PST.
Now, with well over 100 million TV owning American households, this represents a very small subset of the population. But Nielsen has, over the course of several decades, managed to pick a reliable enough samples to get fairly accurate ratings — they aren’t exact by any means but networks and advertisers both accept them and use them to set advertising prices.
Why is everything reported in the 18-49 demographic?
This is simple. Advertisers don’t care about you if you fall outside that age range. Your viewership simply doesn’t matter, sorry. There have been several cases in recent years of shows averaging large viewership with terrible demographic ratings that have been either pulled off the schedule outright or cancelled.
What is a ‘rating point’ and what does it mean?
A rating is a percentage of the total population of TV owners, as opposed to the raw number. The basic calculation is 100 multiplied by households watching a particular show divided by total households who own televisions. So, an 8.7 rating for The Walking Dead, in the 18-49 demo, means that almost nine percent of the total TV owning population (not just cable subscribers) were watching a bunch of mostly formless an uninteresting characters (except you, Carol) fight zombies.
Is live television really dying?
That’s a super complicated question, but the short answer is “no, it’s evolving.” But there’s no doubt that live viewership has plummeted. According to Spotted Ratings (which I encourage anyone who wants to dive deep into ratings to check out, as it’s very ‘inside baseball’ but also very detailed), network viewership has declined about 33 percent in total in the last decade. The chart below indicates 18-49 demographic viewership across each network for each of the last 10 seasons, and it’s not a trend that’s likely to reverse.
But those viewers haven’t simply vanished, they’ve migrated to things like The Walking Dead, and the increasingly diverse TV landscape has fractured viewership. The zombie show has become the tipping point for this migration — it wasn’t the first cable show to beat a network show (I believe that honor goes to Sons of Anarchy in its second season), but it’s the first cable show to outright win the ratings battle over the networks. It is, for all purposes, the highest-rated show on television.
So this why live sports entities keep getting bigger and bigger contracts?
Absolutely. Sports, and specifically football, remain the sure bet in a rapidly changing TV landscape. It’s one of the few things people watch live and both advertisers and TV providers are aware of it — ESPN charges more to your TV provider than any other network by a wide margin. If you don’t love sports, and still pay a cable bill, you are essentially subsidizing sports watchers across the country. The cost to the consumer, and the cost networks are willing to pay to put sports programming on the TV, will keep skyrocketing up as long as it remains the safe bet in live ratings.
And that’s why The Walking Dead ratings were big news?
Yes, even though The Walking Dead beat Sunday Night Football last fall, anything beating the NFL in primetime is zombie-pun headline worthy. AMC’s zombie show remains the exception — nothing else on cable comes close to hitting network ratings — but it demonstrates how the fractured nature of television can allow any show on any cable channel to challenge the networks for supremacy.