Where Are The TV Ratings Going?

By Jon E. Currie

The answer to that headline is very complicated, and now, it seems the entire industry is looking outside itself for solutions. We often hear people saying: “Because no one’s watching traditional TV, we must do downloads, webisodes, podcasts, phonecasts and interactive content . . . that’ll solve it.” Unfortunately, it won’t. As someone very wise said it best: “Know thyself.” 

Recently, in the U.S., Currie Communications set up a subsidiary business TargetDemo.com to deal with the aforementioned issues; the truth is “out there,” but sadly, no one’s listening.

In order to tackle the problems, let’s divide them into key issues —or “characteristics” as U.S. ratings service Nielsen Media Research would say — so that we can put the pieces of the puzzle together, by using the U.S. as a model.

Jon E. Currie
Jon E. Currie is CEO of Currie Communications, Inc.

Nielsen’s Technology Problems

Right now, Nielsen has three systems (actually more, but these are the “big three”) for counting local market ratings. Diary-only — in smaller markets; Meter-diary — in medium markets; and local people meter (similar to national panel) — in the largest markets. Each has its own problems. But none has a truly reliable way to cope with TiVo-like (digital video recorder) technology and all the related gizmos hooked up to TVs — even a simple VCR or DVD. Shows that are TiVo-ed (recorded on DVRs) don’t get counted after more than one day, meaning if a viewer TiVos Lost on Wednesday, plays it back on Friday, there’s no Nielsen PeopleMeter credit. Add up the number of viewers doing this and you get the picture.

Another problem arises: how likely is a homeowner who has multiple gadgets and a $5,000 plasma screen wall-mounted TV to have a Nielsen tech geek hotwiring his equipment to stick on a meter? But ironically, these viewers are more likely to spend time in front of the screen because they’ve invested in all that cocooning stuff. Currie Communications’ research has shown that those with cable or satellite TV watch the most TV. But, they also have the most options, and therefore are least likely to watch traditional television.

Conversely, those without the gizmos tend to watch less, have fewer options, and are almost solely confined to network TV. They are the “least desirable” viewers, and yet if you alienate them, you alienate a good deal of your core viewing audience. It’s a dilemma most people in the industry refuse to face.

People Meters’ Challenges

This is a very complicated scenario. Think about what it takes to actually get someone to install these gizmos in their house, and then punch data into this system. How many times do two or more people sit down to a metered set and only one records his/her viewing? We don’t know. We don’t think Nielsen does either.

Shifting Demographics

This may be the hardest issue for executives in our business to accept. First off, the U.S. population is getting older. Older people (meaning those outside the coveted 18-to-49-year-old group, particularly the “baby boomers”) form the generation that was born into TV. They are the largest in size of any group (nearly 80 million), and they watch the most TV. But yet, once they turn 50, for the most part, they are not counted.

The more “highly coveted” younger folks (the 18-49s) are simply fewer in number. They will never fully replace the number of aging bodies in front of TV sets; it’s a mathematical impossibility. Second, younger folks do not watch TV like their parents did. They have other options. They grew up with cable, the Internet, cell phones and the like. And try as we may, we cannot repurpose networks like Turner Classic Movies for 23-year-olds. Having the same old content that is designed for the small screen stuck on a phone or a computer screen also will not work. Nor can we sell my mother-in-law ring tones. And as we continue to bite the hand that fed us all these years (i.e., alienate the “boomers”), we lose them while taking them for granted. 

Immigration and Hispanic Viewing

The fastest growing segment of the American population is Hispanic. And while marketers and media types are beginning to get this, they are still pretty much “out to lunch” in regards to understanding the true impact of the growth in the American Hispanic population. Though it often appears that Nielsen is inflating the number of Spanish-speaking households, simple as it sounds, many Hispanics do speak Spanish! Which is, of course, one of the main reasons NBC bought Spanish-language TV network, Telemundo. Those households will obviously not be tuned to the so-called major networks when they need their telenovela fix. In some markets on some nights you can take away half the English-speaking HUTs (Households Using Television) and then it’s fairly easy to see where the ratings are shifting. And that’s not even counting the many other language choices available.

More choices

When you look at an overnight rating, you don’t see many of the 200-plus ancillary networks and local channels available on DirecTV, cable, etc., but they are there. So are all the sports and movie options. These channels may only get a tenth of a point, and they fly low under the radar. Most never aspire to the two ratings points put up by an HBO or an ESPN on occasion. But add up all those fractions of ratings points and you get an awful lot of viewing.

Add All This Up

What do you have? Disaster? Maybe, if we continue to plod along the same route thinking all we need to do is repackage and repurpose. TargetDemo.com was started to get media folks to target the correct demo for the right program. Not the other way around. You can’t bring the Mountain to Mohammed, as they say, so stop trying and start winning again.