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What Are Ratings?
A television rating is simply the number of households or persons tuned into a particular television program at a given point in time. This number is calculated by gathering a sample of households that represent the total television-viewing population, and monitoring their viewing behaviors and habits. Advertisers and those in the television industry rely on ratings information compiled by Nielsen Media Research, a provider of general media statistics, including those of television information services.

The Nielsen Media system gathers a random sample of 5,000 households (about 11,000 people) that reflect demographic and racial distribution nationwide. To be representative of the general public, these homes correspond to census population distribution. Using census data, Nielsen Media Research randomly selects over 6,000 small geographic areas or blocks in urban areas and their equivalent in rural areas, and sends out surveyors to count and list housing units. The housing units are then randomly selected for the sample from that area.

Photo of Faces from Newscast This system does not measure the quality of a show, but simply the amount of time it is watched and by whom. By watching the trends among the viewing habits of the people represented in the sample, advertisers and the television industry gauge how shows are performing over time, and during specific periods.

How Nielsen Gathers Ratings
The two questions Nielsen Media Research ratings answer about TV viewing are who is watching television and what they are watching. The population sample comprises homes that have agreed to participate in the research for a specific period of time. There are a series of steps involved after a sample has been chosen.

  • Homes agree to have technicians install metering equipment on TV sets, VCRs, cable boxes, and satellite dishes.

  • The Nielsen Media Research meters track when the sets are on and what the sets are tuned to.

  • The information from the meters is sent to a central "black box," a small computer and modem. The black boxes then call in their information to Nielsen's central computers.

  • To track information about which programs are airing for each station or cable channel, Nielsen assigns a coded ID number which labels the program and episodes of the 1,700 TV stations and 11,000 cable systems in the United States.

  • A "People Meter," a paperback-book-sized box that has buttons and lights and is assigned to each person who lives in the household, including guests, is installed as well. When anyone is watching a show, the switch is turned on.

  • Nielsen also uses TV diaries, booklets in which viewers record their television viewing habits during a specific week. The viewers are asked to write down not only who watched, but what program and what channel they watched.

Advertisers and Ratings
The more a show is watched, the more and higher-paid advertising is programmed into that time segment. In addition, whole populations can be targeted for specific advertisements, just by the demographic information provided by Nielsen. Nielsen says industry leaders and advertisers use this television audience research information to buy and sell television time as well as to increase the effectiveness of television advertising and programming.

If an advertiser spent millions running ads during a show that did not meet its expectations for viewership, it would be economically wise to reconsider its placement of advertising dollars in that time slot. And so, the Nielsen ratings are the most important factor in deciding what shows get aired, when they are shown, and what will be advertised in that time slot.

Chart showing advertising dollars and ratings Advertising pays for commercial television. Period. And that is serious business when it comes to what shows go on the air. According to Nielsen, "Ratings are used like currency in the marketplace of advertiser-supported TV. When advertisers want a commercial to reach an audience, they need to place it in TV programs which deliver an audience. The more audience a program delivers, the more the commercial time is worth to advertisers." To get an estimate of how important advertising is to television, the American Association of Advertising Agencies estimated advertising comprises nearly 22 minutes of each hour of daytime programming, and almost 19 minutes an hour during network news.

For local affiliate stations of larger networks, this makes the difference in what gets shown -- and, in some cases, who gets aired -- on the news and other live programs. So how are local stations to determine what shows overall achieve a higher viewership than others? Nielsen Media Research conducts individual station ratings about three times a year during the "sweeps" months of November, February, and May. During these periods, the performance of the 250 local television markets in the U.S. is thoroughly researched. It is also during these peak periods that the most attention-grabbing shows are aired, in an effort to gain the best ratings.

Photo of Faces from Newscast It is the information gathered from each of these periods that determines how much to charge an advertiser for a specific time slot and also how much profit can be earned. Local stations with low-rated shows will receive the least from advertisers and sponsoring networks. Sometimes this leads to the misconception that "sensational" or high-drama local news increases viewership and, hence, more advertising revenue for the station.

Watch Video Local News and the Ratings
Most Americans get their news from local news sources, yet critics assail this news medium as containing the worst form of television journalism. "If it bleeds, it leads," a standard saying in the local news business, succinctly describes the trend toward crime-related stories. Many factors have led to the sensationalistic edge that most local news reports thrive on. Local news heavily relies on its ratings, as higher ratings lead to higher revenues. Advertisers have conducted research that indicates crime-related stories are interesting to viewers, which increases pressure on news operations to add more of those stories to their nightly lineups.

Mediascope, a non-profit media research and policy organization, found that "market research suggests that stories of crime and violence increase newscasts' ratings." The money earned from these higher ratings, thus higher revenue from advertising in a local news time slot, goes solely to that local station. Local stations rely on this income because it is a direct source of earnings from their production. It is this drive to acquire the most money possible from local news that often results in stations producing shallow newscasts.

Recent independent studies, however, contradict this market research, and suggest that a majority of viewers prefer quality programming in local news broadcasts. The Project for Excellence in Journalism recently conducted an empirical investigation on local television news, and found that what really sells is quality programming. In their report, they conclude that "Many of the conventional ideas about what works in TV news -- high story count, flashy production, emotion over substance, targeting -- are demonstrably wrong."

Photo of Faces from Newscast "These false ideas are being driven by outdated beliefs, and by following the interests of advertisers rather than viewers. And they are institutionalized by short-sighted profit demands that force news directors to cut the very things that build viewership over time -- such as enterprise reporting and building staff," says the report.

Tom Rosenstiel, who heads The Project for Excellence in Journalism, said in a broadcast of THE NEWSHOUR WITH JIM LEHRER that those stations that concentrated on producing well-researched stories, as opposed to seamy crime stories, earned the best grades -- and the most viewership -- in the independent study.

Journalistic Integrity
It seems as though there is a constant battle in local newsrooms between producing well-written stories and pandering to sensationalistic headline busters. Susan Peters, an anchor at KAKE-TV who has spent 26 years in local news, also interviewed in a broadcast of THE NEWSHOUR WITH JIM LEHRER, said "In the '80s, all of a sudden, these businesspeople started looking at television, saying, 'Wow, these things make a lot of money.' For businesspeople who owned television stations, the bottom line is simply the bottom line, making money, and they don't care much about the product."

Although most people do get their news from local news sources, the advent of the Internet has proven to be a threat to the industry, as more people are going online to get more information and well-researched stories. Some local newscasts are successfully adapting to the Web, asking reporters to fill out stories cut short for airtime with well-researched Internet articles and follow-ups, thus adding more substance to fluff or sensation. The Project for Excellence reported that local news stations with an online presence showed a median of 400,000 visitors per month to their Web sites. Many viewers are finding greater satisfaction with the combination of televised and online presentations.

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