As many of you are aware, Lost’s ratings haven’t been as great as they used to be, despite Lost’s return to glory in the eyes of many T.V. critics. Currently, I work in the entertainment industry and hope to shed some light on the realities of the Nielsen Ratings. Hopefully, as an enormous and vocal fanbase, we can help ensure that Lost’s grand plan never becomes compromised by lower-than-necessary ratings.
The Bad News
Season 4 started out strong with 16 million viewers but bottomed out with 11.4. From premiere to finale, season 4 lost 1/3 of it’s audience.
Worse yet, season 5’s premiere got the same 11.4, giving the premiere episode the same ratings as the worst episode of season 4. Premieres are supposed to generate more viewers, they are usually the highest episode of the season. If the premiere of the season isn’t as high as hoped, it doesn’t bode well in terms of the rest of the year. With all the amazing press the two hour premiere got, Lost still had the lowest rating season 4 had.
I’ll be honest, I am concerned. Articles like this are showing up everywhere. A repeat of Criminal Minds on CBS beat Lost in the 9pm timeslot, except for the 18-49 agegroup. The fact that Lost’s time slot has moved twice since Season 2 isn’t the greatest sign of confidence by ABC that they can sell Lost to the masses. Everyone believes the ABC press releases when they say they promise to not cut Lost’s large on-location budget but money is money and promises go out the window when studios are pressured. If season 5’s ratings plummet like season 4 did, well, I don’t want to think about what things ABC might do.
How the Nielsen Ratings Work
Nielsen uses a technique called statistical sampling to rate the shows — the same technique that pollsters use to predict the outcome of elections. Nielsen creates a “sample audience” and then counts how many in that audience view each program. Nielsen then extrapolates from the sample and estimates the number of viewers in the entire population watching the show. That’s a simple way of explaining what is a complicated, extensive process. Nielsen relies mainly on information collected from TV set meters that it installs, and then combines this information with huge databases of the programs that appear on each TV station and cable channel.
That all sounds well and good but the system is archaic in the 21st century. I worked as an news package editor for a Orange County news station. Eventually, he morning news show was canceled because of low ratings. What that meant was that advertisers couldn’t be convinced that anyone was watching our show. Why is the system flawed? There are a total of six Nielsen meters in all of Orange County. Those set-top boxes represent thousands of residents. There was no way to measure exactly how many people watched our show because (theoretically) less than 1/6th of Orange County watched. The fact is that we could have had thousands of viewers but had absolutely no evidence. With no evidence came no ad revenue, thus we all got laid off.
As many of you know, Lost is the most legally and illegally downloaded show when it is on-air. An easy action to take is asking the illegal downloaders to actually watch Lost live, hoping that some of those people you’re pleading to happen to have a Nielsen meter on their television. However, I doubt people with a Nielsen meter would be so careless towards the system, choosing to download a show they care about instead of watching it live. So, asking people who download Lost illegally to watch it live is, in my opinion, not very helpful. The only aspect they harm is Lost’s DVD sales, as someone who has the episodes on their hard drive would probably not spring $50+ per season of Lost.
Lost’s ratings do improve when the DVR numbers come in. However, they don’t count towards commercials because people skip over them. Those numbers only matter towards in-show advertisements such as product placement, which aren’t very adept to Lost’s habit of being on an island. Nokia phones and McDonald’s cups aren’t very logical things for Jack to hold while being emo over Kate. Even worse for product placement, I’m sure the writers piss the execs off by insisting that all products used also tie into the mythology of lost. Sun pulling out a Widmore Labs pregnancy test is the perfect example. I have a friend who worked on Lipstick Jungle, a show riddled with very efficient product placement that blends well with the show’s tune. Their DVR numbers matter a lot due to people subconsciously watching those advertisements.
iTunes & ABC.com
The studios are also aware of the flaws in the Nielsen ratings and their vulnerability to illegal downloads. It has pushed them into experimenting and implementing new streams of revenue. iTunes ($1.99/$2.99 HD per episode) brings revenue directly to ABC Studios. Streaming Lost online at ABC.com brings new forms of revenue. The problem with ad revenue from online streaming is the lack of research done into advertisements’ effectiveness online, lowering the amount a given ad agency will pay per view. People’s state of mind and habits watching T.V. online completely differs from how people watch T.V. from their couch, in which decades of research has gone into studying. When you’re watching on your computer, you can alt-tab (or command-tab for you Mac users) to another application, diverting your attention to something besides the advertisement. That is why ABC.com requires you to click a button to continue. It forces you to view the advertisement in some form and interact with it instead of the episode continuing directly after the advertisement automatically.
After the news show was canceled, I was hired to edit a Web TV news show for the Orange County Register (which was canceled last month-I dunno, maybe it’s me?). Ad revenue was extremely hard to determine. Between the number of people who watched the opening, closed the window 15 seconds before the end, or viewers that watched all the way through, the advertisers were extremely hard to convince just how many people watched for how long. So, on ABC.com, you can’t skip ads and they require some interaction.
What I’m getting at is how to help make sure Lost’s greater plan isn’t threatened by low ratings from a flawed system. The ideal situation is to improve Lost’s immediate ratings via the Nielsen system. When a previous fan reads a news story about Lost’s season 5 premiere having low ratings, how motivated are they going to be to start watching again? Press is everything and if people start hearing that Lost’s ratings are back, they might come back too.
Until then, support online downloads on iTunes. Watch Lost on ABC.com and make sure to press the “Continue” button immediately when it appears, showing them that you were attentive to the ad instead of changing applications or tabs.
I hope this sheds some light on how things work. In the end, the Nielsen Ratings system is still the king of the hill until advertisers are more convinced that online revenue is an untapped recourse. So if you ever meet someone with a Nielsen box, introduce them to Lost. Or break into their house and turn it on for them.