How Ratings Measurement is Hurting Broadcast TV

By Graeme Newell 

One of the biggest criticisms of the millennial generation is that they confuse participation with winning. Everyone gets a trophy in the playoffs. They feel they deserve a promotion because they simply showed up for work everyday.

Well in the past decade, TV has slipped into this same mindset of mediocrity. TV has experienced a subtle yet disturbing change in its measurement of success, and it is most evident in our most hallowed institution – the rating point.

When I began my career, broadcast TV was in its heyday. Viewing was on the rise. Production values were steadily increasing. Scripts were improving. Whole new genres were being born.


Back then, TV staffers would gather around the table each morning and discuss the rating point levels for last night’s shows. Ratings are the percentage of ALL the people in a market who turn on a program. Some viewers start with their TV off, and others switch over from other programs. During these days times were good. There was a tremendous amount of appointment viewing. Viewers purposely tuned in for broadcast events like “Must-See TV.”

During these early days, station staffers never paid much attention to the share of audience. Share counts only people who have their TV On. It doesn’t count people who could watch but choose not to. You can have a tremendously high share, but it can be misleading. If you are getting a huge piece of a very miniscule pie, you’re not getting much to eat. If you get a huge share of a very low rated program, you aren’t attracting many viewers.

During these heady days, we didn’t need the calming illusion of share, because we were the tune-in masters. A share number just couldn’t properly showcase our glory. Only a rating point could showcase the amazing appointment viewing prowess of our sticky programming. Only a rating point could glorify our raw recruiting muscle that could coalesce an audience from thin air.

Now fast forward a few decades and you’ll notice that discussions about rating points have waned. Talk of ratings points are a painful reminder of Broadcast TV’s serious decline in the past decade.

We just couldn’t bring ourselves to measure our life’s work with such a miniscule digit. “Woohoo! We got a 1.5 rating.” This just doesn’t sound as good as “we got an 18 share.” And it sure is convenient and useful on those corporate performance calls. By using share as the game standard, you didn’t need to recruit an audience. Beating the other guy across the street was enough.

So what happens? The audience begins to disappear from the discussion. In a workshop last week, I asked the station staff to describe how their audience had changed during the tumultuous days of the past two years. They had a very time describing anything. Then I asked them to describe how their competitors had changed in the past two years. I had to stop them after a half hour of running down every miniscule blip from the guys across the street.

If you judge the success of your work by its share, you can continue to declare victory book after book, when the reality is that fewer and fewer people are using your product.

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Graeme Newell is a broadcast and web marketing specialist who serves as the president and founder of 602 communications. You can reach Graeme at