What Do TV Ratings Mean?

This is a question that I occasionally have to turn over in my mind when I think about something like the ratings of American Idol. As you may have heard, the ratings for the season premiere were down considerably from last year, somewhere between 20% and 24% depending on what metric you use. But what does that mean exactly?

On one level, it means nothing, or at least nothing to us: the only ratings metric that really matters to a viewer is whether the show is low-rated enough to be canceled. American Idol remains the most popular show on television by almost any metric. It could lose 20% of its audience for years and still be considered a hit by today’s standards. It matters very much to networks whether their hit shows are doing better than the other network’s hit show; the winner gets bragging rights and higher advertising rates. But I don’t know that it really matters to us.

On another level, ratings matter because they’re a picture of trends – and in fact, like any poll, Nielsen ratings are probably better at showing trends than telling us exactly how popular something is. (Ratings can tell us, fairly accurately, whether a show is popular or unpopular compared to other shows, and whether it’s getting more or less popular. They probably can’t tell us the exact difference between two shows’ popularity: if one show has a 1.6 and another show has a 1.8, I tend to think of it as a tie.) The ratings are useful to confirm something we already knew. One is that fewer young people are watching live; among the Coveted Demographic, Idol‘s ratings have been cut in half since the first episode of the second season. But of course that trend affects all of television, not just Idol.

TV trends matter to us, as viewers, because they affect the kind of shows we’ll be seeing. But it’s too early to tell if the singing competition genre is really going downhill or not. The evidence, for the moment, is mixed. Idol is less popular, but it seems like just the natural decline of an aging show combined with the decline of audiences throughout TV. And The X Factor wasn’t a huge success in the U.S., but it was more successful than almost any other show on Fox’s schedule (and cheaper to make). The test might be The Voice. If that show comes back with significantly reduced numbers in only its second year, then that could be proof that the whole genre is losing steam. And if that happens, then we might see fewer shows like this. On the other hand, if The Voice does really well, then it may be taken as a vindication for the whole singing contest genre: it’ll be evidence that Idol‘s declines are just due to the aging of the show, rather than viewers getting tired of this type of show. So the Idol ratings could turn out to mean nothing for the future of the show (which is assured for years) or its genre.

Ratings are also of interest to us as a way of seeing whether a network, or a programming strategy, is on the way up or down. For example, the CBC’s recent shows (like Mr. D and Arctic Air) have gotten over 1 million viewers, a success in a country the size of Canada. We don’t have access to a lot of numbers that would let us know what those numbers mean or how they break down across the country – networks have that information, but they rarely release it unless they have something to boast about. But at least we can look at an upward trend and figure that something is going right for the network, and more generally that Canadians are interested in watching their own shows.

Finally, of course, ratings are fun to talk about. As I’ve said before, it’s a bit like sabermetrics. Unless we’re rooting for a team to win, it doesn’t exactly matter to us whether they adopt the strategies that will maximize their chance of winning. And yet it does matter to a lot of us, even those of us who don’t play fantasy sports (or who play fantasy sports that don’t acknowledge sabermetrics), because it just makes the game more fun. That’s what ratings are for a hit show that has no chance of being canceled: statistics to play around with and construct a theory of who’s winning and who’s losing.

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