Tuesday, February 23, 2010

TV Ratings and Target Demographics

If ever you chanced to examine the ratings of your favorite TV show, you likely encountered a slew of mystifying numbers. Even without knowledge of the intricacies of the Nielsen Media Research company, you've probably figured out that you can judge a show's general performance by using what I call the reverse-Golf method of statistical analysis: the larger the numbers, the better the show is doing.

For those of you interested in a more comprehensive explanation, here's a real life example:

The line for NBC's broadcast of the Opening Ceremonies for the Vancouver Winter Olympics on Wednesday, February 10 reads as follows: 9.0/27, 32.64

Those numbers, from left to right, signify rating, audience share, and total viewers. The first two numbers only apply to adults from ages 18-49, the key target demographic for most primetime shows. If you're interested in why the market is segmented in this way, please, by all means, Continue...

Now that you've followed me through the jump, let's dissect what these terms really mean.

RATING - a numerical value applied to a television channel at a particular time, represented with a single decimal place. One rating point represents one (1) percent of all televisions tuned to the channel in question during the time period in question. So in the above example, 9% of all televisions in the country were tuned to NBC for the opening ceremonies.

AUDIENCE SHARE - an integer with the same applications as a rating. One audience share represents one (1) percent of all televisions in use that are tuned to a particular channel at a particular time. Again, in the above example, 27% of all televisions that were powered on at the time were watching the Olympics. The main difference to keep in mind is that audience share does not take into account inactive televisions.

TOTAL VIEWERS - represents how many millions of people watched a particular program at any given time. Pretty self explanatory. The all time record: this year's Superbowl, which drew 106.5 million viewers. (The previous record was the series finale of M.A.S.H.)

Except for Total Viewers, most ratings resources will usually only give information for the target demographic of adults 18-49. Certain channels at certain times (Nickelodeon, Disney, etc.) shoot for a demographic in the younger range (persons 12-33). Very rarely do networks (such as PBS) aim for higher demos; 25-54 is usually the highest you'll see. What makes that 18-49 demo such a slam dunk?

Let me answer my own question with another question: Why do networks care about ratings? It's not so they can feel good about themselves that people are watching their programming. It's because of advertisers. Networks pull a large percentage of their income through various corporations who are willing to shell out big bucks for the privilege of advertising their products during a certain time slot. The more people watching during that time slot, the more people will see the commercials, and thus the more people likely to purchase the products in question.

This business model operates under the assumption that your average American TV-watching human being is a highly suggestible herd animal, who operates under the "monkey see, monkey buy" principle. Some apologists for the human race (or at least for the American people) may dispute this premise, but many years and hundreds of billions of dollars have shown that the current system ain't broke, and that no one involved intends to try and fix it.

So why are these advertisers so hell-bent on showing their commercials to adults between the ages of 18 and 49? What makes that age range so special? Well, I've got a few theories. (And, as always, the comments section is open to readers with theories of their own.)

First, let's look at the low end of the spectrum. 18-year-olds are first-year legal adults. Most of them are either preparing to head off to college or just entering the workforce. It's the first year in most of their lives where they're afforded certain freedoms, such as smoking and heading overseas to fight for their country.

As is the curious case of the human psyche, as the freedom of these newly christened adults increases, so also does their impressionability. For the first time in many of their lives, they're out from under the wing of their influential and highly regulatory family circles, high school guidance counselors, etc. They have the freedom to make more and more choices on their own (including choices about goods to buy and services to use), and they'll welcome any advice or suggestions, even ones that come from their TV sets during breaks from their favorite shows. And, most importantly, 18-year-olds have no one who can legally restrict them from making whatever purchases they desire.

As we move up in the age range, we see our target demographic start to grow up and become more mature. Perhaps they find steady work, advance within their chosen field, and find themselves with a little disposable income. Some are very likely to get married, settle down, buy a house, and start a family. Their young, impressionable days are nearing an end, but their accumulation of responsibilities is at its peak. And, as is usually the case, the more things one has to take care of, the more things one finds that one desperately needs.

People occupying the upper end of the age range in question are those entering the "distinguished" phase in their careers as human beings. Perhaps a touch of gray around the temples. Hopefully some job security. A well-developed family/social life. Still at least a decade away from retirement and/or mid-life crisis. These dudes and ladies in their mid to late 40's are the sobering glue that holds this demographic together: less impulsive than their barely legal counterparts, wiser and more discerning than the mid-rangers.

As we move over and above the target demographic, we start to see people who are increasingly out of touch with the most advanced technologies, the coolest new products, and reality in general. Words like "crotchety," and old adages about dogs and tricks come to mind. They're also more likely to be hopelessly set in their ways, and thus less likely to be swayed by newfangled commercials, what with the jingles, and the flashing lights, and the kids these days with their short attention spans.

It's not that these older demos watch any less TV than younger Americans; they just tend to watch programs that air at times largely ignored by big ticket advertisers. Because the same impulse behind older folks not not being influenced by commercials is also behind older folks not caring about the hot new primetime shows on the big four networks.

And thus the cycle endlessly repeats itself: the networks plug their shows to the key 18-49 demographic for the sake of advertisers who want to plug their products to the same broad group of people. And until this New Media I've heard so much about catches up with broadcast television, there's no end in sight.