How Television Ratings Work

In the United States, Nielsen is the primary source of television ratings. The company began measuring radio ratings in the 1930s, and in 1950 they implemented the same methods to keep track of TV ratings, as well. They use electronic and proprietary metering technology to keep tabs on the audience that's watching television programs on any given night. To electronically calculate TV ratings, Nielsen implements a statistical system that's very similar to the one used by pollsters during elections. Rather than measuring exactly what's being watched on every television in every household, they gather a smaller, diverse sample group — about 25,000 households — which is meant to be a representative cross-section of homes across the U.S. The representative sample reflects the entire population of TV households based on characteristics such as age, gender, race, geography, cable status, and other characteristics. Any household that has a television is technically eligible to be a part of the sample group, and participants are given some compensation. Nielsen keeps track of who and how many people are watching programs, and each member of the Nielsen household is given a special button that they turn on and off when they start and end a program. This viewer specific information is also transmitted to Nielsen through the black box. The ultimate question: Are ratings becoming irrelevant with DVR and streaming services? The short answer: No. As Nielsen continues to utilize “time-shifted” viewing and third party tracking of mobile watching, the company and its ratings don’t look like they’re going to be obsolete anytime soon.