Nielsen Cops to Ratings Measurement Glitch: 7 Burning Questions Answered

Nielsen TV Ratings Glitch

Nielsen on Friday issued a statement acknowledging that TV ratings have since March been misreported, from “small” to “more significant” degrees.

How does this affect you, Joe Viewer? (Honestly: It doesn’t.) Which shows were affected? Which were not? Will fixing the glitch result in the renewal of Rising Star? Here, some burning questions answered.

WHEN DID THE REPORTING GLITCH START?
The technical error took hold on March 2 of this year, Nielsen says, but “was generally imperceptible” until numbers for the Fall TV season began trickling in.

HAS THE GLITCH BEEN FIXED YET?
A software fix was deployed this Thursday, Oct. 9, meaning that all numbers you see from here on will be correct. (Or as “correct” as some believe them to be….)

WHEN WILL WE TRULY KNOW HOW UTOPIA IS DOING?
Utopia, which bowed the first week of September, may remain a “mystery” for a bit. Right now, Nielsen is only looking back as far as Sept. 22, and will reissue those numbers on Friday, Oct. 17. (Felicity, remind me to put in for a “personal day”!)

HOW MUCH WERE THE NUMBERS OFF BY?
Nielsen says that in “a vast majority of cases,” the impact of the technical error was “small” — or by no more than .05 of a ratings point, our sister site Deadline notes. In “a handful” (or about 2 percent) of instances, the impact is described as “more significant.” (Total audience numbers were not affected by the glitch.)

WILL ADVERTISERS BE SCREAMING FOR MAKE-GOODS, IF THE NUMBERS GET NUDGED DOWN?
Unlikely. Though TVLine has bombarded you, the consumer, with daily Live+SD ratings these past few weeks, the fall season’s first C3 ratings — which measure actual commercial exposure within three days of broadcast, and which are the numbers advertisers actually “buy” — don’t come out until this weekend, and thus will be correct.

WHAT ABOUT DALLAS? LONGMIRE?? MY NBC AFFILIATE’S DAYTIME COOKING SHOW??? CHEF MARGE IS SUCH A HOOT.
Neither cable networks nor local TV ratings were affected by this technical error.

HOW CAN WE POSSIBLY TRUST NIELSEN NOW? THEIR METHODOLOGY ALWAYS SEEMED SHADY TO ME…. WHERE’S MY PITCHFORK?
As part of Nielsen’s investigation into the glitch, they took a larger look under the hood and “determined that there are no issues with the National People Meter, our data collection process, our panel, our TV audience measurement methodology.” So keep the faith in those 25,000 Nielsen households!

Comments are monitored, so don’t go off topic, don’t frakkin’ curse and don’t bore us with how much your coworker’s sister-in-law makes per hour. Talk smart about TV!

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72 Comments
  1. Maureen says:

    What about Revolution’s numbers? The show had very consistant numbers but was cancelled due to low numbers based on this system. Even 0.5 increase could have saved the show.

    • Moment says:

      Revolutions numbers were trending down before this, also the corrected numbers won’t be as high as a .5. These aren’t going to be massive adjustments up or down.

    • Matt Webb Mitovich says:

      “… by no more than .05 of a ratings point….” Not 0.5.

      • Eridapo says:

        The way ABC has been adjusting upwards these last 3 weeks I bet they will be hit with a tenth or more adjustment for all their shows. The OUAT adjustment of 3 tenths for the premiere now looks suspect, and if I were to guess that will be coming down.by just as much

  2. Grey says:

    I wonder how much this affected ABC. According to Zap2it’s TVBytheNumbers site ABC was experiencing a huge number of miscalculations since premiere week. By the time final numbers were reported in the afternoon, most ABC shows were getting adjusted up from two to fourth tenths of a ratings point per series.

    • Matt Webb Mitovich says:

      Ha, I actually asked a pal over at ABC about the daily upticks they were seeing in finals. She chalked up to “one of life’s little mysteries.” Mystery solved!

      • HeatherC says:

        I thought those early ABC ratings looked a little wonky! No show gets adjusted up so much that many times and it was happening to almost all of their shows no matter the night. I’m very interested in finding out if this had something to do with it! Thanks as always for the great reporting Matt. =)

    • Grey says:

      Hey! Who’s this other “Grey” person? I didn’t post this!

    • Moment says:

      CBS also made a point to enquire about the discrepancy between the fast nationals and the finals. It’s entirely likely the whole thing was brought to light by CBS asking questions.

  3. Moment says:

    Given the amount of people that don’t understand the system, I suspect there will be a fair amount attacking the system, calling it “inaccurate”. At least Nielsen have admitted to their error, it shouldn’t have much of an impact on most shows.

  4. L says:

    Always thought it was cooky that so much of what we get to see on TV is determined by a handful of secretive families. In this day and age cant they just rig all the Cable company boxes to automatically send a signal on what is getting watched so that we can get a real figure rather than the fake ones we seem to be getting.

    • chris says:

      1. Not everyone wants their TV viewing monitored
      2. If you were to ” just rig all the Cable company boxes to automatically send a signal on what is getting watched” how would you know how many people were watching TV at a particular time or the gender and ages of the people watching?

      • TV Gord says:

        Correct. Also, since many people (myself included) leave their cable boxes on all the time and only turn off our TVs, it would be registering several shows that I’m not really watching (and I would prefer not to be responsible for those middle-of-the-night infomercials to get higher ratings).

        • Matt Webb Mitovich says:

          250 TVLine Power User Points for both Chris and Gord. (No cash value.)

          • herman1959 says:

            OK, I have a question for Chris/TV Gord/Matt. Are we talking about mistakes with the number of viewers or the demo (or both)? Thanks from those of us who are lost.

          • Matt Webb Mitovich says:

            Says in story — “total audience” is not affected.

        • S. says:

          There are also still paper pamphlets that get mailed. Not sure how randomly. They send you 5 crisp $1 bills as incentive to send it back (believe it or not, that’s been proven to increase the odds). My family got to do one once so for 7 days we were technically a Nielsen household. So depressing to realize how much tv you watch over a week. Your neighbor Bob could be impacting a show’s ratings for that week, however slightly, and you’d never know it. Make sure he watches The Mindy Project just in case! ;)

          • Ratings Guru says:

            The diary method is used only in smaller DMAs. The National numbers are soley based on People Meters.

          • Ratings Guru says:

            The diary method is used only in smaller DMAs. The National numbers are soley based on People Meters, which is also where the error occured

        • MKoz says:

          Ummm…all of the cable boxes are already “rigged” to give out your viewer information. There is an alternate ratings company out there selling exactly that. And yes Gord & Chris, that is exactly the problem. These cable box ratings companies use a bunch of “modelling” including having a panel of people that they know turns their cable box off and on (who does that?) and they use those results to model the rest of the country. And they only report HH data, because they only know that someone is watching TV, not who is watching it. But people are buying into it because they are selling it as “Big Data”

          • Fran says:

            Ha, I never knew anyone left their cable box on. My remote shuts both the box and TV off. Mines never on when Im not physically watching it. Learn something new everyday ;)

    • Name That Tune says:

      Not everyone uses a cable box or satellite TV. Some of us still do it the old fashioned way and pick up digital over the air signals.

      Or watch the 21st century way and stream our TV over the Internet.

  5. Et al says:

    I lost faith in those 25,000 Nielsen households long ago :D

  6. mor says:

    What about Revolution’s numbers? The show was cancelled due to low numbers based on this system, fans want a recount and are still fighting to get this show back.

    • Moment says:

      You should tell these fans to stop being hysterical as the corrected numbers will be marginal adjustments either up or down.

      • missy says:

        Thats kinda an unfair description of revolution fans as hysterical. Fans are only fighting and voicing opinion cause a show they loved got cancelled without proper ending and over 66, 000 petition voices up to today are” hysterical” #relocaterevolution
        u must av fought for something u felt strongly bout in life, thats not hysterical.

  7. anna says:

    matt – so are today’s figures correct – so ratings for Thursday shows?

  8. Ray says:

    Nielson ratings are archaic and antiquated. A better methodology that measures how people in today’s times view TV needs to be put in place by a new marketing and data acquisitions company.

  9. D says:

    I wonder if it affected Friends with Better Lives?

  10. Laurie says:

    Revolution’s problems were also a result of.long delay between seasons and even episodes. If they could fix that and recheck numbers, possibly the show could be continued. The show was/is awesome and deserved so many more seasons!

  11. ggny says:

    Does this affect Firefly!? Veronica Mars!? My So Called Life!? Every other shows canceled because of low ratings!? Will they now be coming back and be renewed for 10 years?

  12. Moment says:

    So Matt, where did you get the 25,000 number from? Your sister site Deadline 2 years ago even made an accurate report claiming it was closer to 20,000. The sample size hasn’t increased that much.

    • Moment says:

      Oh and I was asking purely because I thought it was still at roughly 20,000. Robert Seidman from TVbythenumbers also did a Nielsen ratings report breaking everything down and put the number at 20,395.

  13. Fran says:

    Thank you Matt for your fair (and funny) reporting on this. Sounds like this was such a small glitch and it didn’t result in anyones favorite shows being erroneously canceled.

  14. Willow says:

    What do I thing of Nielson, not much. Last week we were on vacation, and we had 4 calls from Nielson ratings. I was in shock, because my husband is over and I am I year behind him on the non almighty ages of life support for shows, and the ratings Gods were calling us! Seriously, the rating Gods are worshipping ages that are living in their parent’s basements because their student loans are killing them, and ignore people that are able to spend money because they invested well. They are able to rate shows on a small number of machines they give out to the public, and that’s how Nielson rates, and hell with people that realize you don’t have to be sitting on your couch today to watch your favorite shows. Seriously, new shows today are screwed if networks trust this out of date system.

    • Moment says:

      Nielsen is the only provider out there that can offer a detailed breakdown on who is watching watch. This is required by networks and advertisers.

      • Willow says:

        Sorry, I don’t drink the same Kool-Aid today’s society drinks. Lets be fair and rate everyone watching TV (not just the young) and all forms of watching a program and just not on the exact time a program is on. I am sorry, most people I know have a weeks worth of shows on demand and watching them when they can. Sorry this is not the 70’s, 80,s or 90’s and today phones can do your banking and tell you are going in the wrong direction, or get a reservation in the hottest restaurant, but we are still using Nielson ratings to rate shows, no I can’t agree with that.

        • Moment says:

          There’s literally nothing else out there better. While I support the system, I’m not against something better if it were to come around, however it would be a hard sell to networks. For the foreseeable future we’re stuck with Nielsen.

          • Willow says:

            WHY? Sorry not being a pain, it just makes no sense in today’s world of technology’

          • Moment says:

            Why are we stuck with Nielsen? Lack of viable alternatives. The breakdown of who is watching what is vitally important for advertisers, networks make money from said adverts.

        • herman1959 says:

          Ditto to everything you just said. Plus, let me add that Nielson seems not to realize that today parents are older which means that 40 and 50-somethings have Tweens and Teens at home. The kids demand a lot of consumer goods that the parents pay for, not to mention, household purchases like furniture, appliances, and autos. And, since the parents are busy working to pay for everything they can’t always watch TV “live”.

        • Ratings Guru says:

          Your comment is not accurate. Nielsen gathers viewing data from all age ranges, and any type of demographic can be analyzed. Consider doing dome searching and learn about the approximately three ways Nielsen gathers its data. Also, keep in mind the huge conflict of interest with Rentrak now that a major ad agency owns nearly 20 percent

      • Sam says:

        Neilsen isn’t the God of ratings anymore. Oher cable providers are not even using Neilsen (AT&T Uverse and Verizon FiOS for instance) and their channels, who are also not Neilsen rated, are able to breakdown demos and gain advertisers still. I can only hope that this changes in the future for more channels, but since a select few larger companies are controlled by Neilsen, they might have the upper hand indefinitely.

    • Alex says:

      If you’re going to complain about the company, at least learn how to spell its name correctly. NIELSEN, not Nielson, dearie.

  15. Grey says:

    “So keep the faith in those 25,000 Nielsen households!”
    That don’t actually represent me. *I* want to represent me! – not some schmoe down the street who doesn’t watch the same shows I watch. Arrgh!

  16. James says:

    Came here to make a Utopia joke but the article beat me to it.

  17. JG says:

    I’ve never trusted this ratings system and I never will. To start with, for the number of TV viewers out there, the “sample” number is extremely small. In this day and age, with all this wonderful technology we have, they should have a much simpler and better (and more accurate) way of measuring ratings. Nielsen is naturally going to say that this “glitch” affected such a small number. If I were in their shoes I would say the same thing. The last thing they want to do is lose money.

  18. Buck says:

    It’s the entire Neilsen system passé? With Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, and individual channels own apps, measuring viewership by Neilsen ratings is a thing of the past.

  19. TV Gord says:

    Thanks for anticipating our questions and providing informative answers. You answered some long-standing questions that I didn’t even have about this story (it’s nice to know it really is 25,000 households).

    Now, if the revised numbers put The Good Wife and Parenthood at the top of the ratings, all will be forgiven, Nielsen! ;-)

    • Moment says:

      Except it’s not 25,000 households, that number is inaccurate.

    • Matt Webb Mitovich says:

      I obviously cannot vouch for a hand-count of all Nielsen households, Gord. It may be closer to 20,000. But in the 45 seconds I had to research the number before running off to Comic-Con, I found multiple references to a “20,000-25,000” range, so I gave them the benefit of a doubt — if only because of the initiative underway to grow the sample size over the next year-and-a-half.

      • herman1959 says:

        Considering the millions of TV households we have in this country (not taking time to research the exact number), 25,000 vs. 20,000 is not a dramatic improvement (statistically speaking).

  20. Dog4 says:

    Kind of amusing to see so many people carrying water for nielsen. Regardless of whether the issue is fixed, it goes to show that it’s good to have a little competition, or at least a second source. Nielsen sampling methodology works in theory, but would be reaffirmed in practice by having another source come up with the same results.

  21. LIsa says:

    Matt, quick ratings question… When TV By the Numbers reports that Chicago Fire earns a 2.1 in the 18-49 demo and 8.3 million live viewers while Person of Interest posts a 1.6 in the demo but more total viewers at 9.8 million, who actually wins the night?

    • Matt Webb Mitovich says:

      CHI FI “technically” beat POI (because of the demo number), but when all is said and done — and TVBTN has a great FAQ about this — shows don’t compete against other network’s shows, they compete against their own, with “lowest man on the totem pole” at greatest risk. (That’s an oversimplified explanation, but the gist holds true.)

      • herman1959 says:

        Thank you!

      • Jamie says:

        So, what you are saying is: Reign has not been doing well in the ratings (especially the demo) ; so I need to boycott Jane the Virgin, Heart of Dixie, and Beauty and the Beast (and pretty much hope that all three do poorly) so that Reign can get a season 3?

  22. Gwen McGraw says:

    The numbers for TV shows were skewered – all cancelled shows should be given another chance. The Revolution fans are growing stronger and louder every day. Bring Revolution Back!

  23. Michelle Reeve says:

    Nielsen is IMO a joke…they take a small sample of people and they decide for the masses what should be on TV. Revolution is a fabulous show and had steady ratings even with the treatment it received from NBC with long breaks for no reason and an ill conceived timeslot. I for one have stopped watching NBC because Revolution is not the first show NBC has sabotaged IMO so I have given up on the peacock. Networks need to realize that not everyone likes to watch endless cop dramas and reality TV some of us like substance and originality. Hopefully someone out there will listen #RelocateRevolution

  24. Susan says:

    What about all the shows cancelled while this glitch was going on? I have had so many good shows cancelled and ALOT of people are mad, not just me. I don’t trust any of these ratings…

  25. elgianne says:

    Nielsen needs to come clean with honest numbers for Star Cross and Revoltion. Both shows were cancelled and we believe this was due to their glitch!

  26. elgianne says:

    Sorry, typos and it won’t let me edit: Star Crossed and Revolution!