TV Ratings and Online Audiences… Or, Where to Find Skeet Ulrich’s Bio

The TV ratings system is broken. Everyone knows it, but nobody wants to admit it. Nielsen ratings struggle to accurately measure audience quantity (limited tracking of DVR usage and online viewers) and quality (are viewers engaged? are they skipping the ads?). However, admitting so would undermine the delicate balance TV networks share with their advertisers.

I caught an interesting segment on KCRW’s "The Business" podcast about TV series that find themselves on the "bubble," i.e. at risk of getting canceled. The producer of CBS’s Jericho, "a post-apocalyptic drama starring Skeet Ulrich" (shouldn’t that description alone put it on the chopping block?), explained how they received a temporary stay of execution when their small but loyal audience protested network plans to cancel show. The interview raised questions about the validity of Nielsen ratings and how an fervent online audience can bring additional perspective to the performance of a show.

All this talk of measurement gave me an itch to look at some real data. I tracked down the Nielsen audience size (Subscription required) for TV series over the 2006-2007 TV season. Then I pulled from comScore (a Juice client and leading source for data about Internet traffic and usage behaviors) the unique visitors and time spent on websites of TV shows over the same September to May time period.

I had a few questions I was curious about:

  1. Which shows have dispropotionately larger internet audiences—an indicator of a loyal and rabid fan base? Are there other shows like Jericho that struggle to build a large TV audience, but have a strong online following?
  2. Which TV show sites have the most engaged audiences?
  3. What TV networks have been most successful at building online traffic to their sites? Which types of shows spawn online audiences?

The table below shows the top 20 TV series by ratio of monthly unique website visitors to average TV viewership. This metric suggests an ability to get viewers to look for more content, whether it is additional video, information about the actors, or discussion boards. If Jericho’s 9.5 million TV viewers (tied for 48th overall) represents the proverbial bubble, there are eight other shows with bubble-level ratings that can also claim strong online support (highlighted in this list).

Ratings Table 1

I also wanted to get a sense as to the engagement of the online audience. Were people simply stopping by the website to check the TV schedule, or were they digging deep for more content? One measure that gets at this question is minutes per unique visitor. The top 20 websites are listed below. Interestingly, 12 of these sites are also found in the previous table. Jericho is one of four of the bad-Nielsen-ratings/strong-online-audience group that overlap with the table above. (NBC, if you are grousing about ratings for The Office, hopefully these numbers will make you feel a little better.)

Ratings Table 2

The final table addresses my third question about the TV networks and types of shows that are best at building an online audience. ABC has done more than twice as well as CBS in getting viewers online, which may be a reflection of the traditionally older CBS audience. Note: I pulled the top-end outliers (American Idol, You Think You Can Dance?, and Deal or No Deal) from the Network comparison.

The second half of the table brings those TV series back into the mix in the reality/contest category, and you can see the impact. I was surprised at the dearth of sitcoms on this list. It may be that a website for a sitcom doesn’t typically make sense.

Ratings Table 3

With all the money spent on TV advertising, I can only hope the networks go beyond the top-line Nielsen ratings to try to get a complete picture of their audiences.