Confessions of a Nielsen Junkie

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Photo-Illustration: Fox

The Ratings Game is a weeklong series exploring what the new world of TV ratings means for your favorite shows.

As a kid growing up in the 1980s, a few things were guaranteed to bring instant happiness: a fresh roll of quarters and an open Ms. Pac-Man machine, the fall preview issue of TV Guide, the voice of Ernie Anderson informing me this week’s The Love Boat would be a two-hour event. Nothing, however, delivered more consistent joy to my latch-key childhood than page three of the "Life" section in the Wednesday edition of USA Today: The paper printed a full, night-by-night Nielsen ratings chart every week. I marveled as Cheers transformed from also-ran to juggernaut, watched in horror as Moonlighting frittered away its once substantial numbers, and mourned the inability of Amazing Stories to ever really find an audience. Every kid loved watching TV, but I also enjoyed watching how those mysterious Nielsen families responded to shows. It was the beginning of a lifelong ratings addiction, one I’m not the least bit ashamed to admit to — even if I’m worried it soon could be coming to an end.

I’d like to think my status as a Nielsen junkie isn’t all that bizarre — at least not in a country where young kids are taught to worship at the temple of the NFL and NBA from a very young age. I grew up without a dad or siblings, and never developed much of a rooting interest in big-league sports. Instead, I fell in love with the ratings game — the sport — of network television. ABC, CBS, and NBC were my teams; their dozens of shows my players; the Nielsen chart the playing field. My passion for ratings, both then and now, isn’t about crunching data, or even winners and losers (though that can sometimes be involved, particularly when a show explodes like Empire or crashes like Mulaney). It’s about loving TV, and the idea of television as a shared national (and sometimes global) cultural experience.

Like any diehard sports fan, my TV and ratings fandom was built around team loyalty. The first one I cheered was Fred Silverman’s mid-’70s ABC, a pioneer in the idea of actively targeting younger generations. Critics at the time bemoaned Silverman’s emphasis on lowest-common-denominator comedies (Three’s Company, Laverne & Shirley), Aaron Spelling fantasies (The Love Boat, Fantasy Island), and what one rival network exec called  “jiggle” TV (two words: Charlie’s Angels). The critics were probably right to be aghast. But for a young boy being raised by a single mom and single 25-inch color TV, Mr. Silverman was a genius, the Steve Jobs of his time. I was a bit too young to understand ratings during Silverman’s three-year tour of duty at ABC — or, honestly, to even know who he was — but I watched as many of his shows as my mom (and her unreasonable 9 p.m. bedtime) would allow. And I kept watching ABC long after he left, since his successors followed and improved upon his programming philosophy even after he jumped ship to NBC in 1978.

Not surprisingly, my team loyalties shifted to NBC not long after Silverman did. His magic touch was transforming a plucked Peacock into a network with a pulse, at least among the demographic sliver of 10-year-olds name Joe. Suddenly, a network I only watched occasionally on Saturday mornings was fielding a winning team: Diff’rent Strokes, The Facts of Life, and Real People in prime time, The Smurfs on Saturday mornings,  and one of my favorite game shows of all time, Card Sharks, on weekday mornings. Silverman stepped down from NBC in 1981, but I would stay Team Peacock until at least the Clinton administration. For those of you under 30, the Must-See TV era of NBC probably begins with Friends, Frasier, and Seinfeld. But for me, the 1980s and early 1990s NBC teams headed first by Brandon Tartikoff and then by Warren Littlefield will probably always be the greatest of all time. This was the era that produced Family Ties, Cheers, L.A. Law, Hill Street Blues, The A-Team, Silver Spoons, The Golden Girls, TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes, Friday Night Videos, and countless other hits. Even the flops were awesome back then: Go watch It’s Your Move on YouTube and send me a thank-you email later. Or check out Amazing Stories (now streaming on NBC.com), a high-profile failure from Steven Spielberg that served up a different, self-contained story every week. (Think Black Mirror, but much less artsy.)

It was during the Tartikoff-Littlefield Age at NBC that my ratings addiction really took hold. Through USA Today and my local newspaper (which printed the ranking for every single show), I would keep track of how all of my favorites were doing — as well as the shows I hated (you can still rot in hell, Hardcastle & McCormick). I didn’t know much about lead-ins or time slots back then, except from what I’d glean reading the news stories in TV Guide. But I could figure out that having the lowest rating of three shows in a given half-hour, or being at the bottom of a list of 70 shows, was not a good thing. I wasn’t some sort of junior Nate Silver, predicting hits and misses for the next season. Instead, I was just simply aware of, and incredibly intrigued by, the whole process by which TV shows came and went. TV then was a direct democracy: People watched and shows lived; they didn’t, and they died.

Eventually, my love for ratings blossomed into something more adult. During my final year in college, I got a freelance gig writing for the Boston Herald. I somehow ended up reporting on the local TV scene in Beantown, including —  yep — ratings for the area stations. A helpful PR person offered to fax me over the numbers at the end of the quarterly sweeps periods, and I started learning how to read a grid and spot trends. One day I noticed that a new talk show airing at 1 or 2 in the morning was doing really, really big numbers for that time of the day. After watching a few episodes, I realized the show was different from Oprah and Donahue, and felt like it was geared toward viewers my age. I pitched a story on it to my editor, and not long after, The Ricki Lake Show exploded onto the scene nationally. Something similar happened with another show I noticed bubbling under, an afternoon kids' series called Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. To be clear, I wasn’t some sort of genius journalist for picking up on these statistical shifts. I was just a kid who loved to look at ratings.

It’s been nearly 25 years since someone started paying me to write about ratings and television. A lot of what I say about Nielsen numbers now I do for free, on Twitter every day. Technology means I no longer have to wait for someone at NBC to fax over a sheet of paper with the latest record-breaking number for ER, or wake up at 6 a.m. to call a ratings hotline so I can see if Survivor set a new high-water mark. (Really: I used to call a ratings hotline not once, but twice, every morning.) Now I can log on to a studio website and get tons of data the moment it’s in the system, allowing me to herald the performance of a big event such as The Wiz with a “boom!” or a “yikes.” Social media also means I now know there are thousands, if not millions, of other TV fans who connect to shows through ratings as well. Producers who once were just names on the screen to me sometimes retweet the ratings info I post (if it’s good), or quietly send me a private message to help explain the numbers when they’re not. There are even nattering nabobs of Nielsen negativity, ratings trolls who get off on disagreeing with my analysis or bashing anyone who interprets numbers differently than they do. When those folks pop up, I long for the simplicity of my USA Today chart.

And yet, even though I’ve never had more ways to feed my ratings addition, I’m beginning to think I won’t be able to enjoy my chosen vice for much longer — at least not in the same way. As Vulture has reported all week long as part of our special series, "The Ratings Game," overnight numbers simply don’t mean what they used to; even the extended three- and seven-day DVR data isn’t always decisive. Many mornings now, there’s very little variance in the demographic performance of network shows. It’s hard to get excited when every drama on NBC or CBS does about the same as the other shows around it. More important, it’s professionally irresponsible of me to give too much importance to a metric that simply isn’t as all-important as it once was.

At the end of 2015, it’s still possible with most shows to predict their future based on some sort of rating (live or DVR). Cases such as Aquarius, where there’s absolutely zero Nielsen data to support a second season, are still the exception. But two or three years from now, I’m not so sure that will still be true. Cable networks like FX and AMC have already moved at least partially to a post-Nielsen business model by keeping shows such as Fargo and Halt and Catch Fire alive. (I’m not complaining about either decision, by the way.) ABC has kept Nashville around for years, even as its audience has shrunk so small it could probably fit under a few ten-gallon hats. It’s still (probably) a good decade away, but it seems wholly possible that many of today’s ad-supported networks, including ones now known as broadcast, will eventually shift to a model where subscription revenue is the primary source of income. If and when that happens, ratings won’t be wholly irrelevant (as they are for, say, Netflix and Amazon). But it’s hard to imagine getting much of a thrill tweeting out monthly subscriber gains or losses for CBS All Access.

A part of me hopes that I’m being way too gloomy in positing a world without ratings. Even today, with network overnights less potent than they’ve ever been, I still get a charge out of digging deep into the data and discovering some revealing nugget about how we watch TV. (To wit: Among women over 65, The Good Wife is a top-five show, and The Big Bang Theory doesn’t even crack the top ten. Thank your grandma for keeping Alicia alive!) Still, if tweeting out ratings ends up as hopelessly outdated as cassettes and CDs, I think I’ll be okay with it. As I said earlier, my love of ratings is really about a love of TV. And while there’s nothing wrong with networks trying to make shows a lot of people might like, or the idea of audiences giving feedback via their remotes, I’m also very excited to be living at a time when new viewing platforms and revenue streams are making possible shows that not long ago wouldn’t have lasted more than a season or two. Based on its Nielsen numbers, I don’t get how FX keeps The Americans in production — and I don’t care. I’d also love to know how many people are watching every show on Netflix, but as long as they keep making comedies like Master of None and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, I will gladly stay in the dark. Ratings are fun, but great TV is better.