TV & Entertainment

TV ‘Ratings Success’ A Relative Term

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.


  1. Patrick, as you probably know, I come from a television background. Most people do NOT understand ratings and share – or understand the difference. But, I can say that it was QUITE DIFFERENT when I was head of television movies at ABC in the early 80’s. 
    My boss had a personalized license plate that read “40 Share.” Almost unheard of today but pretty common-place when there was no cable, no internet, and the only way to see a theatrical movie was when it was IN release or shown on television.
    All these measurements are misunderstood by most people. #DadChat got a “World Record” in January with over 227 MILLION “Impressions” in one hour, over 267 million in the 48-hour period I usually measure. Those are impressive numbers but most people don’t understand an “impression” from a “rating” or “share.” 
    Now they say how many million viewers there were when they talk success or failure of a particular television program. I read that the recent Super Bowl was the highest-viewed television event ever. I question that in our current times when there are so many viewing options. But, regardless, it was big.
    Anyway, I love numbers – I just wish they couldn’t be so easily mis-used. Our government ALWAYS states numbers in ways that support a view they wish to promulgate while the other side can take the exact same number to support their viewpoints. So interesting…

    1. BruceSallan Yes, Bruce, and television stations and networks often misquote or overly-accentuate positive numbers for their own purposes.
      I once worked in a market where one of the competing stations doubled its rating in one book. Because it saw a 100% increase in ratings, compared to the other stations in town, it immediately began touting itself as “the fastest-growing local newscast.”
      Which WAS true…but they neglected to mention that their rating went from a 1.0 to a 2.0! The highest rated newscast in that market at the time was about a 15 or 16 as I recall. 
      Fastest-growing? Well, yeah. But nowhere near fast ENOUGH! 🙂

  2. Patrick,
    I happen to think that they do not give them a chance to build a following a lot of times. Let’s take the case point of Friends. As we now it has gone down in television history with huge success…but that almost wasn’t the case. The first season it did not have the large of following and NBC considered cancelling it. They changed their mind and kept on their Thursday night line up allowing it to run for ten full seasons and pick up more viewers every year. 

    I think the one flaw in the system is that there is so much competition on television anymore it takes time to build a viewership and the network as to be willing to allow them to do that (which they never seem to be willing to do anymore)

    Aaron Brinker aka DadBlunders

    1. dadblunders I don’t disagree that there’s not enough time given to allow a show to find its audience. “All in the Family” wouldn’t have survived if it hadn’t been for summer reruns. Neither would “M*A*S*H.”
      Of course, back then, there were only the three networks and a few independent stations that didn’t have much to offer. Nowadays, as you point out, there’s so much competition that a show only gets one or two chances and it’s gone. It’s unfortunate that there are potentially great shows that just never get their change to get anywhere.

  3. I’m afraid I’m one of those grumblers you mention.  It often seems like shows I like are cancelled while the shows I’d never watch are renewed.  Yes, I understand that the networks have to pay their bills but that’s not much of a consolation to me when I can’t find anything I want to watch on television some evenings.  So, I’ll probably continue to complain and continue to turn off the TV and pick up a book when there is nothing on for me!

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 27 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.