Is your favorite television show a ratings blockbuster or on the verge of cancellation? The answer almost certainly depends on the ratings that show is getting, but there’s more to it than that.
Consider the case of Killing Lincoln, a scripted drama the National Geographic Channel aired over the weekend. I missed it, but wish I’d seen it. I’m sure it’ll re-air, especially considering that the program brought that network a record rating: 3.4 million viewers. Its actual household Nielsen rating was a 2.6, meaning that 2.6% of all American televisions were tuned to that program.
If that doesn’t sound like much to you, you’re right. But then we’re talking about a cable channel for whom that rating represents a 175% increase from its typical rating at that time period.
So for them, 3.4 million viewers are something to celebrate.
It’s a very different story at CBS, which just “fired” its new reality show, The Job. That show, which aired Friday nights at 8pm as a mid-season replacement for Undercover Boss, also pulled in 3.4 million viewers. Starting this week, Undercover Boss returns to the time slot.
How can the same results get one program lauded and another yanked off the air?
There are multiple kinds of ratings in the TV biz. Household ratings take into account the total number of viewers of any age.
One week in January, CBS’s overall prime time average was 13.28 million viewers, with an 8.2 household rating. That explains why a household rating of 3.4 wouldn’t seem all that impressive there.
But advertisers are often looking for a specific segment of the population within that “TV universe.” Adults 18-49 or Adults 25-54 tend to be the favorite demographic measurements, although many advertisers focus on either men or women in those categories, based on the specific argument they want their ads to reach.
Killing Lincoln pulled a 1.1 rating on Adults 25-54. Again, it’s a low number, but for the National Geographic network, that’s not so low. The Job, meanwhile, pulled a 0.7 in its target demo of Adults 18-49. When you try to get advertisers to buy a show based on a “target demo,” it’s that rating that can make or break a show you’re running.
I hear people all the time complain that the networks always cancel the shows they like to watch. No network wants to cancel a show it knows people are watching. The problem is, networks have to make more room for shows key advertising demos watch, because those are the shows that bring them the most revenue.
It’s not a perfect system, but like every other industry, they have to pay their bills.