What It’s Like to Live and Die by TV Ratings

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Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photo by FOX

The Ratings Game is a weeklong series exploring what the new world of TV ratings means for your favorite shows. To kick things off is Liz Meriwether, creator of Fox's New Girl.

Hey, everyone! I hear you want to know about the Nielsen ratings? Sure!

I created a network television show, which obviously means I’m an expert in everything. The Nielsen ratings are a way of measuring how many viewers are watching a TV show live. For those younger people reading, a television is a large electronic box that hangs on the wall or is freestanding in what is sometimes called a media center, which is a late-20th-century term for big cabinet. If you can believe it, you turn on that television at the exact moment that a television show starts. You can’t be late. Just like an airplane or a train! Then you watch the commercials. And the Nielsen ratings are a way of counting the number of people who do that!

But how does it work? If you’re very lucky, you get chosen to be a Nielsen household. That means you get some kind of box installed in your television. But what if I don’t have a television? What if I watch TV shows on my computer? No one cares about you, you little millennial snotbag. So then this box records the shows you are watching and somehow gets that data back to some kind of central headquarters. I like to think it’s a “central headquarters,” but I really have no idea what the Nielsen offices look like. In my mind, it’s kind of like CSI, and all the people who work there are super-hot scientists who wear lab coats and appear to each other in holograms. “Did you see what Hillary Jensen of Ohio watched last night? She is wasting her life. Girl needs some diiiick!” The holograms all laugh with each other and slap hologram high-fives. Maybe there’s a Nielsen office jokester. I like to think his name is Brian, and he sometimes gets the numbers wrong, but he sends out hilarious videos and he’s got a cute kid and everyone likes him.

The numbers are then reported to websites and agencies and networks. I get them from the producer of my show, who gets them from a woman named Vivian, who I think works at Fox. It always says: “FW: Blackberry Fast Nationals – Tuesday [the date].” I see that subject heading, and a cold shiver runs up my spine. I have no idea what the “blackberry” means. Maybe it’s from someone’s Blackberry? Does Vivian stay up all night on her Blackberry sending out emails? Go to sleep, Vivian! I usually get the numbers email on Wednesday morning around 8 a.m. Sometimes I open it and look. Sometimes I’m just not feeling emotionally strong enough, and I read articles about the Middle East until other producers on the email thread start writing in. “Oof.” “Ouch.” “Woof.” “Okay.” Sometimes “Good.” Or “Yes!” Then I kind of break down and open the email. The easy metaphor to describe reading the numbers email is “ripping off a Band-Aid,” but I’m not a writer who uses easy metaphors, so I’ll say that it feels like “running naked through the Whole Foods parking lot at 4 p.m. on a Sunday, screaming, ‘Where’s the barbecue sauce?’”    

I always end up opening the email eventually. If the numbers are good, a warmth rushes through my whole body, and I get up and put on a skirt or something, and I’m nice to everyone. On the “Oof” mornings, I’ll usually wear something slouchy, like sweatpants or a dark sweater, and come to work and give someone hell about a story not working just for fun.  

To read the numbers email, you have to scroll down past a lot of other numbers for other shows and weird categories.  There’s a category for “A18-49” and a category for “A18-34,” and then something really crazy called “A18-49 VPVH,” which could literally mean anything, then, finally, the real kicker, “P2+,” which I think is something that Brian at Nielsen just made up to mess with everyone. He’s like, “Wouldn’t it be funny if I made up a ‘P2+’ category and everyone pretended that they knew what it meant?” Brian’s a little shit, but he makes amazing banana bread.

I just look at the A18-49 and A18-34 because I think, think it means it’s some kind of share of the audience in that age group. People have used the word share with me, so I think it’s a share. Which, in my mind, is like a pie slice? You want to get a big slice of pie, but usually you get a small slice of pie, and then everyone tells you it’s okay, the live numbers don’t matter anyway, but also they totally do, and we’re panicking, and can you change everything to try and get a bigger number? It makes perfect sense if you’re stoned. But you have no time to get stoned — you’re running a network show!

Every week, I have to scroll past NCIS. And I’m usually thinking, Fuck you, NCIS, because their numbers are always enormous. I finally broke down and watched it over this past hiatus, and America is right: It’s awesome. They have amazing chemistry. You wouldn’t think that a TV show about Navy officers solving Navy crimes would be that good, but it is. Anyway, I scroll past that number and get to my number. I look at it quickly, then I usually blame myself and send out an email explaining to all the producers how I’m ruining the show. Then I delete it and go put on sweatpants. Or I’m wearing a skirt and everything’s fucking great.

These days, they also count the people who watch the show three, seven, and 30 days later — called the “+3’s,” “+7’s,” and “+30’s.” In my mind, the +3’s have their lives together. They are busy people who are too cool to be home when the show airs, but they stay on top of things, and they just bought a fall jacket that they feel great about. The +7’s are a little looser, crazier. They party hard. They binge. They drink Jamba Juice. They’ll do things like make you go outside and look at the moon. The +30’s are total wild cards. They don’t believe in instant gratification. They’re overthinkers. “Should I watch this show, or should I wait a month?” They can’t make decisions. They are barely holding onto their jobs. They have recently thought about murdering someone, but ultimately decided they’d get caught. Either that, or they have young children and are perfectly nice. The +365’s I don’t even fuck with. No one should.

Oh, and I think they only count you if you don’t fast-forward through the commercials. Which means you are a person who is asleep, or very old, or you work in advertising, or you don’t understand your remote, or you are a dog. If that’s you, please watch New Girl!  It airs on Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on Fox. Don’t be late. I’m serious. I could not be more serious.

So, yeah, the Nielsen ratings! Those numbers go out, and then almost all creative decisions about network television in America are made based on them. It’s a perfect, beautiful system. One that I think everyone, especially British people, recognize as flawless.