Should Nielsen Change How it Measures TV Audiences?

When the fourth season of NBC’s “Community” aired in February, it pulled in 4 million viewers, which is roughly a quarter of the audience that tunes in to top hit sitcoms. Until recently, Nielsen numbers in that range might be the end of a series (think “Firefly,” “Jericho,” “Freaks and Geeks”). But on the night of the “Community” premiere, the show spawned two worldwide trending topics via Twitter — perhaps a more important metric today.

“All of your favorite shows are ratings dogs,” writes Wired. “‘Breaking Bad,’ ‘Girls,’ ‘Mad Men’ — each struggles to get a Nielsen score higher than 3, representing about 8.7 million viewers. And it’s not just cable. NBC’s ’30 Rock’ struggled to top a score of 2.5, and ‘Parks and Recreation’ rarely cracks Nielsen’s top 25.”

“There are two possible conclusions to draw from these facts: (1) All these shows should be canceled, or (2) maybe the ratings are measuring the wrong thing,” notes the article.

The Nielsen family began to rule the TV ratings roost in the 1970s, using 25,000 households to provide a collective measurement of what the nation watches. “Over the years, the Nielsen rating has been tweaked, but it still serves one fundamental purpose: to gauge how many people are watching a given show on a conventional television set,” explains Wired.

But that’s no longer how people watch TV. Many viewers are turning to services and platforms such as Hulu, Netflix, Roku, Apple TV, iTunes, Amazon Prime and increasingly access content via their smartphones and tablets. And none of those devices or platforms are currently reflected in the Nielsen ratings. (However, last month Nielsen announced it would soon include Internet streaming to TVs in its ratings.)

Advertisers are very interested in figuring out how to track those mobile ratings and to track the sort of online buzz generated from shows. “It all adds up to a potentially thrilling new era for television, one that values shows that spark conversations, not just those that hook us for 30 minutes. The stakes are high: Get it right and great programming will continue to thrive. Get it wrong and the $70 billion television industry is in jeopardy — and so is your favorite show,” suggests the article.

Companies like Amazon are going straight to the source for input: the crowd itself. The company is creating original content for its Amazon Prime streaming service and will showcase pilot episodes of various sitcoms before allowing audiences to vote on favorites to be turned into series. “The viewing data and feedback will then be used to select — and tweak — the most promising projects, so that when the series launch, they’ll already be optimized for both quality and buzz,” writes Wired.