How Ratings Work and What They Mean

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I, like many others never really understood how TV ratings work, and until now, I never cared either. As a viewer of The Vampire Diaries, I was never interested in their ratings, I knew it was a popular show in CW, and I didn’t care beyond that. But now after The Originals aired these ratings have been confusing me. There are 7 different versions of what the ratings say and 20 different versions of the ratings interpretation and what it means for the show. Some said that the show wasn’t doing so good, some said it wasn’t doing all that bad for a new show, and some said it was doing even better than competitive network shows. So, I’d had enough, I had to understand what it means, how it works and how to interpret it.

I have a degree in International Market Analysis and Management, and anything to do with numbers and trends interests me, so once I started researching into this, I couldn’t stop at the very basic. So, I got my commerce degree on and started to finally understand the workings of TV ratings. And I thought I’d share what I’ve learnt and understood so far with you all.

The CW  sources – A B C

First off, we must understand a little more about the network CW. Relatively its a new network, it only started in late 2006. As compared to the other 4 major networks (ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC), The CW falls behind considerably. According to statistics at the start of this season, that is september 2013, CW ranks last, i.e 5th in total viewers as well as A18-49 viewers. If you ever look at the ratings of CW shows and then compare it to ratings of shows in other networks, almost always, you’ll see that the CW shows have lower ratings.

For example, take a look at the thursday ratings from October 25th 2013. Many shows dropped in ratings this thursday due to Game 2 of the World Series airing on FOX.

The Vampire Diaries, one of CW’s most profitable show earned a rating of 1.1.

Reign earned a 0.6, which was down from the previous week.

The Big Bang Theory, one of CBS’s most popular show, earned a rating of 4.9 (a season low rating.)

Same with Scandal, as it gained a season low 3.0 rating.

Elementary gaining a 1.8, higher than the previous week.

Hence, its abundantly clear that one of CW’s most popular show doesn’t even come near to other networks moderately popular shows, forget the big guns like Big Bang Theory and Scandal.

In simple words, CW has low standards. Shows that work on CW would not work on other networks. So, essentially what is a bad rating for a network like CBS or ABC (#1 and #2 networks this season, and most seasons) is a good rating for CW. Hence, while judging ratings we must remember that we cannot compare to another show on another network. Thus, The Originals and even biggies like TVD, Arrow etc, simply by being CW shows, by default, are going to be less popular than other network shows, because CW simply doesn’t garner that many average viewers.

Take for example, the past week, which is season week 7 ending Sunday, where CW ranked 6th (0.7 average in A18-49), even Univision beat it to take the 5th spot above it.

The Originals garnered a 0.9 in the A18-49 (don’t worry I’ll be explaining what this 18-49 thingy is soon) in its pilot episode this season, which for any other network than CW is abysmal. Reign did, and is doing even worse, and yet hasn’t been cancelled. Quite simply, if TO was a show on CBS or ABC, it would be long gone.

Also an interesting fact for those who didn’t know; CW used to be called WB. And CBS owns 50% of CW and WB (Warner Brothers) the other 50%, hence the name CW coming from the first letters of each owner ‘C’ and ‘W’.

What’s with the two ratings?

Have you ever wondered why there are two ratings specified when you search for the ratings of a particular show? Almost always you’ll see ratings gives like this : 1.3 in A18-49 rating/share and 2.5 Total. The 2.5 rating specifies the total viewers that particular episode of the show generated. This rating is free of any demographic target, it simply tells you the total number of people who watched this episode.

So when you see the ratings of the latest The Originals episode – 1.1 A18-49 and 2.38 total.

So this means that in total 2.38 million people watched this episode of The Originals.

So now what is this 1.1 A18-49 rating/share? Now that is called the Nielsen Rating.

What does Nielsen Rating mean?

The Nielsen ratings is the system of overnight ratings i.e providing the ratings of an episode immediately the day after it airs, that was developed by The Nielsen Company 25 years ago. Nielsen ratings are measured in a target demographic audience, divided by age and sex. Though, it has been proven that the most popular and important bracket of the Nielsen rating is the demographic of Adult 18-49 (A18-49). It also measures ratings or shares of people watching a particular show/episode in brackets such as: Males in ages 25-45 and Females in ages 18-34, but these are not as important as the A18-49 ratings.

How do they find out the A18-49 rating for a show?

This is done through devices fitted in a select sample households all over the country called ‘People Meters.’ Nielsen hire families from all walks of life across the country to become an official ‘Nielsen Family.’ Each family represents a specific number of households in their market (New York, Los Angeles, etc.), which helps determine the ‘share’ each program generates.

So now these ‘people meters’ are installed in the households, and they are connected to VCR’s, DVR’s and every other possible device, and every time a member sits down to watch a show, they must press a button that indicates that they are watching it, and the meter records it. So once they press their button, its like they’re signing in, and every 45 minutes they’d be asked to refresh or re-confirm that they were watching, and if they didn’t refresh, then the monitoring box stops recording instantly. So if you left the TV on for 2-3 hours but weren’t watching anything, it wouldn’t be considered for rating calculations because they would know that no one was watching the show. Nielsen even monitors DVR’s, so incase someone records a show to watch later that gets considered.

So the Nielsen rating of a show tells you the percentage or share of audience watching a program.

The Originals got a 1.1 A18-49 for their latest episode, which means 1.1% of all monitored houses were watching this show. Similarly, Big Bang Theory 4.9 in A18-49 meant that 4.9% of the monitored houses signed in to watch the show.

What’s important to know is that this percentage is only from the Nielsen monitored houses. It is said it only monitors close to 30,000 houses all over the country. A very small number when compared to the total population that owns television sets.

What is the point of ratings?

Television, like everything else, is a business. And the business of business is to make money. The ratings a particular show receives determines for the network how much it should charge for advertisements during that particular show. Simple.

The ratings tell us how many people are watching the show, which indirectly tells us how many people will subsequently watch the advertisements. Thus, a show with higher ratings will charge a higher price for advertisements, whereas a show with lower ratings will charge much less.

Ad money = Profitability.

The more a network can charge for advertisements, the more money it makes, the happier it is, and more likely to keep the show running.

Which ratings do the networks consider?

The networks do not consider the total viewers its show gets, but only the rating of the show according the Nielsen A18-49. The advertisement charges are based on the A18-49 rating of a show, hence making it the most important rating.

For example, in the year 2007-2008 Grey’s Anatomy was able to charge $419,000 per commercial, compared to only $248,000 for a commercial during CSI, despite CSI having almost five million more viewers on average. This was because Greys Anatomy had a higher A18-49 rating.

The reason for wanting higher ratings in the young demographic is because of the marketing strategy. Close to 86% of the target demographic of advertisements are between the 18-49 age group, hence making it the all important share. Networks also consider DVR ratings, as well as L+7 day rating, i.e Live + 7 day rating that usually bumps a show up by 10-20%, but sometimes even adjusts down.

What determines the survival of a show?

Generally it is widely accepted that the Nielsen rating of the 18-49 demographic determine whether a show will continue on or not. A show must provide profit to the network in form of Ad dollars, and for this it must have a good A18-49 rating.

But, the network the show is on means a lot as well. Like I said before, CBS (even ABC) is never going to keep shows that gives it ratings like 0.8 and 1.1, apart from a few rare exceptions. That is because CBS has shows that give it regular ratings above 5.0 (Big Bang Theory and NCIS), and hardly any of their shows dip below the 2.0 mark, CW on the other hand never even gets close to a 2.0.

So, all those of you hoping for The Originals to get cancelled (don’t hide I know you’re there), I must say, I doubt it will happen. TO’s highest 1.1 rating may be abysmal for other networks, but its a moderately good rating for CW. Like I said before, CW has low standards and just doesn’t generate enough average viewers to get higher ratings. This also has to do with the fact that CW is majorly a teen network, it may look at the 18-49 demographic, but its main audience is in the demographic of 15-30. Despite The Originals claiming to be a more ‘mature and adult show’ its still a teen show.

In its 8 pm timeslot on Tuesdays, The Originals garners the lowest ratings, not surprisingly. I still can’t wrap my head around why they decided to move it to Tuesdays, where it goes up against biggies like NCIS and S.H.I.E.L.D. And let me tell you, NCIS is The Hulk. Yet, I doubt it’ll be cancelled unless it drops below 0.8 then it might be possible. So yes, if you hear people saying TO is doing well, they are right, it is doing well, but in CW standards. But still, the basic point is it will survive as a show. But that’s about it.

Another important thing to remember is that a large online fanbase does not instantly equal a large viewership. Because a generous part of any fandom fanbase are non US residents, and The Networks don’t give jack about us sitting in Brazil and India and Australia watching their shows. Sure, it makes their show ‘popular’ but it doesn’t earn them any money, hence they don’t care. The Supernatural fanbase is HUGE but its viewership? Not so much. Similarly The Walking Dead fanbase on the internet etc isn’t that big, but it is the most watched show this season.


Nielsen ratings are god, basically. Even though its criticized to be an outdated technology, and I must admit that there are some flaws in its accuracy. So each rating has room for error, because Nielsen depends on people to accurately record their viewing habits. In some parts of the country, that includes filling out paper diaries that have to be mailed. People can make mistakes and write down the wrong channel or forget to fill out the diary completely. Sample sizes are small. Nielsen can’t monitor every home in a city, much less the entire country, so it chooses a small number of people to represent the nation.

So, simply, it’s almost impossible to know what the rating of a show is, but the Nielsen rating for A18-49 has been working almost successfully for so many years, so it must be doing something right.

In conclusion, this has helped me finally understand how the rating process works and what it means, and I hope it it did the same for you. More importantly, I’ve managed to clear up the many doubts I had after seeing completely contradictory facts and statements flying across my dash on tumblr. Like:

  • CW is most definitely not one of the most popular networks with highest viewership or some crap like that. If you don’t believe me, you are free to take a look at the sources linked and see for yourself. CW ranks 5th, that is when Univision doesn’t swoop in to push it further down.

  • And this ridiculous statement I’ve seen of The Originals getting better rating that competitive popular shows in other networks has been put to rest. The Originals is doing well, according to CW standards, which aren’t something a network aspires to have. So, yay for TO doing well in CW but no way in hell is it doing better than competitive shows.

  • TVD, Arrow and SPN still continue to be CW’s top rated shows, thus garnering the most Ad dollars.

  • TVD will most likely get its full 6 season plan, but I doubt it’ll go beyond that. It’s still doing good for CW but its ratings have dropped this season as compared to the previous years. And SPN, well god only knows. Arrow will probably gets its full 5 season deal as well.

  • And for speculations as to whether TO it will get a second season. I’m not sure to be honest. I think it will get a second season, but I can’t say with 100% assurance. CW cancelled The Secret Circle even though it apparently had a good fan base, but it didn’t have the best ratings either, averaging 0.6 – 0.8, and was thus cancelled after season 1. Reign isn’t doing any better either, earning an average of 0.7 and has been given a full season order.

  • CW also seems to be slightly benevolent to some of its shows. Especially Nikita, which hasn’t done the best last season and was looking at certain cancellation but CW ordered a 6 episode special last season.

  • There are too many holes in the rating systems, too many flaws and too many ‘buts’. But another fact is, it’s going to stay that way. Too much money has been invested into this system to allow for retraction.

Read a statement from NBC President of Research and Media Development Alan Wurtzel about the ratings system :

“Listen, Nielsen is a monopoly. They’re the only game in town. [Their ratings] are the only currency.”

Thus in conclusion, in the words of New York Times media reporter Brian Stelter

“People don’t want to think about whether data is true or not. But as long as we all agree to go along with them, it’s relatively comfortable for the industry.”

Source – (X)


Article written by Tanya. Find her on Tumblr 


6 responses to “How Ratings Work and What They Mean

  1. Pingback: How Ratings Work and What They Mean « katelamprou·

  2. First, thanks so much for explaining this, ’cause it’s been something I’ve wondered about for years.
    Second, I really hope The Originals doesn’t get cancelled, because I don’t know what the likelihood of the characters moving back to TVD is, and I do have a little hope of the show eventually developing into really enjoyable to watch, with the hope of Klaroline always there.

  3. Thank you for this article. I really hope TO stays for several years. It’s such a great show, and I cannot lose TVD 2.0. Also, Klaroline would last even longer in TO because TO will still be on after TVD finally concludes (years from now).

  4. I have always been confused with the rating system, thanks for clarifying. Don’t think anyone could have explained better…Really hope TO gets a season 2 🙂

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