The Fate of Television Rests With You

By: Breanna Shiflett
After a long hard day of school and work, there’s nothing better to do than escape from our own reality by entering another. Many choose to do this by watching television. As soon as people enter the door and drop their bags, the screen is on, blaring action and laughs. It’s as comedian and talk show host Jimmy Fallon once said: “At the end of the day – if you’ve had a bad day, if life sucks—you still have TV.”

Casual-watchers and die-hard fans alike, we’ve all got our favorite shows, whether it’s Glee, Hawaii Five-0, or Jersey Shore.  But what if at the end of the day you open the door, flop down on the couch, and find that your favorite show, your beloved escape from reality, has been cancelled? How could this have happened? Who is to blame? Is it time to start sending nasty letters to your local NBC executive? Start rioting in front of the CBS headquarters in New York City? Well, you might want to hold off on that, because those people have little control over the fate of a television show. In truth, the blame is entirely yours—the fate of your favorite show rests in your hands.

How can something as significant as the fate of an entire show, its cast and crew, and everything along with it rest with you? It’s simple really: the future of a TV show is based on viewership, which can be seen through Nielsen ratings. These ratings go back as far as 1923, when Arthur C. Nielsen created the Nielsen Company and set out to survey engineering performance, making Nielsen Company the first to monitor sales and provide market research. As time went on, the ratings were applied to radio and eventually to television as we know them today. These ratings are a detailed analysis of a person or family’s viewing habits and demographic information, and they are collected with Nielsen panels and censuses from DTV set top boxes and receivers, the devices that allow you to watch television broadcasts. Nielsen’s People Meter, which sees what is recorded, fast forwarded, watched, and which family member is doing the watching, is also used. When a family member sits down to watch television, they must log in to a device and punch in their name and age. They log out when they are done watching. All of this data is sent to the Nielsen headquarters each night to be recorded and to ultimately back the ever-so-important rating.

However, not everyone has these Nielsen boxes—in fact, only about 50,000 people (20,000 households) in the United States have them, so these ratings are generalized. In order for the collected data to be completely accurate, households must be selected at random. You may receive a letter in the mail or a visit from a Nielsen representative if you have been selected, but there isn’t much you can do to get in yourself. Volunteering is not an option, so getting in on the Nielsen ratings is left to chance. Another unfortunate flaw in this system of ratings is that watching TV online (via Hulu, Netflix, iTunes, etc.) does not count towards the Nielsen ratings, and in this day and age, when many viewers use these methods to watch their shows, this leads to a large number of viewers not taken into account.

The most unfortunate thing about the Nielsen ratings, however, is that they are virtually unheard of to the general public. A casual television watcher will most likely not know what the ratings are called, let alone understand their complexities. They’re not going to spend their time searching on the Internet for a small number unless they are seriously invested in the show and its fan-base. Even at Tuscarora High School, where many students love their television shows and chat about them constantly, the Nielsen ratings are virtually unknown. Out of 33 students of all four grade levels, only 8 of them had even heard of the ratings, and a few only recalled knowing about them after the premise had been explained. This lack of knowledge can definitely impact a show, as many people are unaware that their television-watching habits can actually hurt the shows they love.

What’s so important about a little number, especially one that most people haven’t even heard of? Surely it doesn’t have enough power to determine the fate of a show. While these ratings are important to networks, there’s another number that is far superior in the sense of determining television lifetime. Almost everyone uses DVRs and other recording devices these days, either because they aren’t around to watch the show or simply to skip the dreaded commercials that accompany them. The latter reason has so much importance in the fate of TV shows: commercial ratings are actually really what matter. These ratings are used to buy ads, set prices, and ultimately determine the fate of the show. The advertisers couldn’t care less about who is watching what show, but who is watching their ads. Even if you’re a hardcore fan of Grey’s Anatomy, and you record it every week and never miss an episode, if you fast forward through the commercials you’re still hurting the show. During commercial breaks, most people get the urge to channel surf, even if they end up switching to a show they have no interest in, just to avoid watching the ads. In reality, you could end up helping a show that you don’t like rather than a show that you may have invested a lot of time in.

What does this mean for you and your favorite TV show? If you’re the number one fan of a show and its cancellation would mean the end of the world, the best thing that you can do is watch it LIVE. Even though watching commercials isn’t the most exciting thing in the world, and you have the urge to channel surf, the most important thing you can do is stay on the same channel. Do everything possible to not actually watch the commercials—mute the TV, walk away for a few minutes, grab a snack, or surf the web on your phone—as long as your television remains on that channel. That way, you’ll be doing everything in your power to keep your show on the air and let your fears of your favorite escape from reality being lost to the archives dissipate. So take notice—the future of your favorite show rests not with ad salesmen, local executives, or high up producers, but with you, the viewer. The fate of television rests with you. What will you do with it?