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:
- 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?
- Which TV show sites have the most engaged audiences?
- 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).