For decades, household ratings have been the yardstick used
to measure television audiences. But that's changed recently.
To the dismay of some cable executives, both the consumer
and entertainment trade press are increasingly turning away from ratings, which represent
a percentage, instead reporting total TV-viewership figures the actual number of
people who are watching networks and shows.
This change in the data total viewership versus
household ratings and total households that newspapers from USA Today to The
Hollywood Reporter are using in their stories and charts comes at a crucial time for
The broadcast networks and cable are waging a bitter
public-relations battle over audience erosion, with both sides trying to spin Nielsen
Media Research data to cast the best light on their positions.
Some cable networks argued that emphasizing viewership --
rather than household numbers, or ratings -- diverts attention away from the broadcast
networks' eroding audience base.
Primetime Total Households, Season to Date (In
"Big Four" Nets
Note: Denotes Sept. 21 through Oct. 11. Source:
Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau.
For their part, research executives at cable companies such
as Turner Broadcasting System Inc. and Discovery Communications Inc. are crying foul over
the new dependence on total TV-viewership numbers in newspaper stories. Cable officials
charged that using those figures has the effect of instantly inflating broadcast's
"The currency of our business has been households for
a long time," said Robert Sieber, vice president of audience development for Turner.
"Now, we have a new currency being established. If you want large numbers, you talk
about total persons watching. But are we dealing with funny money?"
Added Steve McGowan, vice president of research at
Discovery Networks U.S., "For broadcasters, the 1998-99 tactic is to avoid the issue
of audience decline to mask their ratings decline."
Cable-network officials charged that journalists are
falling for the propaganda of the "Big Three" broadcast networks, which have
been lobbying hard to convince the press to turn away from household ratings and total
households, and to instead report total audience viewership and specific data on
demographics, such as 18- to 49-year-olds, that advertisers buy.
In fact, this past summer NBC West Coast president Don
Ohlmeyer and CBS president Les Moonves paid visits to various publications, pleading their
case and complaining about the way that ratings have been reported in the past.
ABC, NBC and CBS did not return calls seeking comment last
week. But journalists denied being manipulated by the Big Three, saying that they are just
trying to make their stories understandable to the average Joe.
"It's not that broadcast wants to look bigger," New
York Post TV columnist Adam Buckman said. "It's that cable networks don't want to
TV households, obviously, can have more than one person
watching a program. This is tracked by Nielsen's People Meters, and it adds up to total
For example, for the week of Oct. 5, broadcast's top show
was NBC's ER, with a national household rating of 20.2 or 20 million
households and 29.3 million viewers according to Nielsen. Cable's top-rated program
that week was a National Football League game on ESPN that did a 4.5 national household
rating, or 4.5 million households and 4.9 million viewers.
At MTV Networks, executive vice president of research and
development Betsy Frank had her own read on the viewers -- versus ratings -- situation.
"When you don't like what's happening, change your
report card," she said.
Frank said it's obvious that viewership numbers highlight
the fact that broadcast has more viewers than individual cable networks.
"Broadcast, by definition, reaches more people than
cable," she said. "Thank you, we know that."
Journalists at papers including USA Today, The
Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter, the New YorkPost and
the New York Daily News said they are simply adjusting the way that they report on
TV audiences in order to best serve their readers.
In many cases, according to reporters, consumers don't
really understand what rating and share numbers are, even when a story includes
boilerplate phrases explaining them. On a national level, each rating point represents 1
percent of total U.S. TV homes, or 994,000 households. Share represents the percentage of
TV sets in use.
The Daily News, a New York tabloid, is using total
viewership numbers in most stories now, TV writer Richard Huff said. Broadcasters argue
that household ratings are irrelevant, and that advertisers buy demographics, he said.
"We have come to the conclusion that using viewers
two-plus [2 years and older] is more understandable for our reader ... the best yardstick.
Readers can easily understand that they were one of 8 million to watch 'X' program last
week," Huff said.
Los Angeles Times TV writer Brian Lowry said he was one
of the first to start running Nielsen viewership numbers and sometimes demographic
numbers rather than household ratings, starting in January 1997.
"This is much more reader-friendly much easier
and simpler. When you have to add qualifiers [to explain ratings], it mucks up the
waters," Lowry said.
Several TV writers added that they were also thwarted in
their ability to report household ratings and households because several of the "Big
Four" broadcasters stopped including those figures in the weekly ratings reports that
they issue. In some cases, reporters said, they are only getting total viewers and
demographic numbers on a weekly basis.
"The broadcasters are trying to control the manner in
which the press reports on television," Sieber said.
But TV journalists denied that they're being used by the
Big Three, and they accused cable networks of long playing their own games by offering
their household ratings in terms of their smaller cable universes, and not total TV homes.
"Cable ratings don't equate to national ratings,"
said TheHollywood Reporter's Scott Hettrick.
For example, broadcast executives reportedly were
infuriated by a Newsweek story earlier this year about the success of Comedy
Central's South Park. By apparently comparing South Park's cable-universe
ratings to broadcast's TV universe ratings an apples-to-oranges comparison
the story mistakenly reported that one night this spring, South Park beat ABC's Primetime
Live in viewership.
Said Buckman, "Cable researchers are afraid that when
the numbers come out of hiding, instead of those hard-to-understand percentages, the truth
will be revealed. Individual cable networks have audiences that are much smaller than the
broadcasters'. So the argument that cable is taking over broadcast will be
In contrast to other publications, Variety
which is owned by Multichannel News' parent, Cahners Business Information is
continuing to concentrate on reporting household ratings (both cable and total TV
universe) and total households, while adding demographic data when appropriate in stories,
Variety reporter Tom Bierbaum said.
"Household numbers, No. 1, offer a historical
perspective, and they are fairly reliable numbers [unlike the viewer data that come off
People Meters]," Bierbaum said. "You lose both of those things when you use
He added that by using total viewers, the broadcast
networks are able to boast that they are setting new audience records, without
acknowledging the fact that there are more TV homes now.
"It's a kind of puffery," he said.
Not all cable-network researchers were up in arms about the
Tim Brooks, senior vice president of research for USA
Networks Inc., said, "Showing actual numbers is not such a bad story for cable."
Brooks pointed out that USA Network's Moby Dick
miniseries in March outdelivered broadcast in some hours. Almost 18 million viewers
watched some or all of Moby Dick during its two parts. MCN