TV ratings are a key component in many different decisions. For example, what shows should networks keep investing in? Where should brands place their advertisements or sponsorships? Does another show need this time slot instead of the one that’s already there? These are just a few of the numerous questions that TV ratings help answer, but how are they determined? 

a family is sitting in front of a television on a tan couch
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Nielsen Media Research has already been responsible for calculating television audiences since the 1950s. Nielsen uses statistical sampling to rate shows. Statistical sampling is a method where a group of people is used to represent a whole. Then, they report this information as a rating along with a share. The rating shows what percentage of all U.S. television households watched the program, whereas a share shows what percentage were using their television used it to watch the program. It would be way too difficult to analyze every person’s television viewing time, so this makes it simpler. Nielsen takes in a group of households (about 42,000) and records what programs they watch, when they watch them, and how long they watch them. This is a relatively small sample, but Nielsen makes sure that their choices represent the whole population. They even go as far as hand-selecting which families they want to be a Nielsen family. They try to select families who best represent United States consumers by paying attention to age, ethnicity, economic status, gender, location, race, and more. They also gather additional information to help out advertisers.

Households enrolled in the Nielsen surveys/studies have to indicate who is watching the television each time an individual views something. The program then tracks how long the individuals watch and what they’re watching. They even make PPMs known as Portable People Meters which can report if a person is watching on a phone, tablet, or laptop. The age range of 18-49 is a specifically sought-after age group because that’s the easiest age group to persuade into buying stuff with advertisements. The data that companies get from Nielsen helps them decide when they need to air their advertisements and what television network they need to use to do so.

nielsen television logo; pink, orange, teal and purple triangles (play buttons) arranged in a odd pattern with the word nielsen in black words after it
Image source: Nielsen

Measurements of ratings through streaming most likely aren’t as accurate as regular television, but Nielsen still uses primarily the same routine as they do for traditional television. Except with streaming, they record the statistics through the household’s internet router. The ratings of streaming have become increasingly important over the last few years and will only continue to grow more so.

Although Nielsen remains to be the main program used for tracking, another program is now being used by big brands as well. is now being used by ABC, NBC, Jeep, LEGO, Dish, Universal, CBS, and more. This is because Nielsen recently lost the Media Rating Council accreditation. tracks and measures TV advertising activity in real-time for television ads from more than 10 million television screens.