Monday, July 27, 2009

The Nielsen Ratings

By: Debbie Kaufman

Recently some people I know became members of the Nielsen Television Ratings families. What this means is that what they watch actually has a direct influence on television ratings. The Nielsen folks came out to their house and hooked up a special box called a “People Meter.” According to the Nielsen website, here’s how it works:

“Our national sample, composed of a cross-section of nearly 10,000 representative homes throughout the United States, is measured by People Meters, a technology that has been in place since 1987. These meters give us information about not only what is being viewed on the set, but also exactly which members of the household are watching.

The People Meter is a “box” — about the size of a paperback book — that's hooked up to each television set and is accompanied by a remote control unit. Each family member in a sample household is assigned a personal viewing button, which is matched to that person's age and sex. Whenever the TV is turned on, a light flashes on the meter, reminding viewers to press their assigned button and to indicate that they're watching television.”

Pretty cool, huh? Fortunately for my viewing preferences, we like a lot of the same shows. So, maybe those will get renewed for another season.

Like a book’s sales figures, TV ratings tell us a lot about what TV shows are popular. But, what it doesn’t tell us is why that show is a favorite. Is it the drama, the humor, the plot line, the characters, the sexual tension, the true-life basis of the show, the competition involved? Just what is it that keeps us tuning in week after week?

I have a close friend with no TIVO/DVR. I know, it’s shocking. She is totally addicted to So You Think You Can Dance. She will plan her evening around getting to watch that show. You can be in the middle of a friendly conversation and the next thing you know, she’s got to go because “her show” is coming on. It’s just that important to her. What does she love about it? She says it’s the beauty of the dance, the costuming, the choreography. But it’s also that this show doesn’t go into the backstage negativity and chatter that a lot of others do.

In my case, one of my favorite shows is The Closer, currently #3 in the ratings for cable shows. I watch (DVR) each episode not only because I like the plot lines, but because I love the character. We have a choco-holic, middle-aged Southern woman whose accent always gets her IQ knocked down a few points in the bad guys’ minds, yet she kicks bad guy butt every week. What’s not to love?

I love action, adventure, crime, and other similarly oriented shows. However, without a strong character(s) with a good developing story arc over the series, I can’t be bothered to tune in. I’m kind of the same in my book choices. I read very eclectically with a strong emphasis on series suspense. I read authors as diverse as Mae Nunn is from Rita Heron, or as different as Stephanie Bond is from Lee Child. What makes the choice for me? Like my TV choices, it is the strong character(s)’s personality and their development over the book or series.

Bottom line: TV ratings and book sales can tell us what’s popular, but not always why. What’s important to you in a TV show, a movie, or a good book? What keeps you tuning back in or buying an author’s latest release? Tell us what the ratings or sales figures don’t specify.


Sandy Elzie said...

Great post, Debbie,

What makes me tune in again or buy someone's book by name only? It's the characters. I love a good plot, but if the characters aren't real, then I lose

Same with TV, which I seldom watch. CSI Miami is a favorite but if I miss it, no big deal. (Besides, it'll be out on DVD soon anyway, so why sweat?)

Thanks for a thought-provoking read.

Tammy Schubert said...

What makes me tune in again or buy someone's book by name only? It's the characters and the quality of the story.

Speaking of buying a book on name only, Suzanne Brockman's latest book in the Troubleshooter Series is coming out tomorrow. The title is Hot Pursuit. Suzanne does an exceptional job with male characters and creates masterful stories. I've read all of the books in this series, and I'll buy anything she writes because I know it is a high-quality read.

Maxine Davis said...

I really enjoyed your post! Years ago, my house was a Nielsen Television Ratings family and that was when Magnum first appeared. I loved the show and was glad to see it "made it."

I'm mostly a 'certain authors' type of girl - tend to stick with my favorites, but I'm learning new favorites with GRW and enjoying it. I buy the ones that have stories/characters/settings I like. And a cover or two has been known to influence a reading of the back cover and purchase.

Debbie Kaufman said...

Sandy, I'm too impatient on a favorite show to wait for the DVD's, however, I like the fact that I can check out shows I haven't watched on DVD. Too funny, but when my dear one had some surgery a couple of years ago, he got hooked on Desperate Housewives! I got the back episodes and we watched them together.

Debbie Kaufman said...

Tammy, I am the same way with several authors. With TV shows, it's usually the producer. For example, J. J. Abrams is one of my favorite producers. I almost always get sucked in to his shows, notably Fringe.

Debbie Kaufman said...

Morning Maxine. How cool that you were one of those families! Yeah, a good book cover will suck me in pretty quickly too. Too bad authors don't always have control over their covers. A bad one can be such a negative influence.

Susan May said...

Great post. I love the strong woman characters, but they still have a soft side that catches the hero's attention. The Closer is one of my favorites. My family loves the cable shows. They are much better than the 3 used to be big guys. I'm a Linda Howard fan, who does great characters.

Dianna Love said...

I only watch TV shows when they hit DVD. I never can commit the time to do it during the year, but my hubby and I like to rent them to watch during movie nights at home. I like to be surprised by the premise and pulled in by the characters. I keep trying to get a couple nights to rent Burn Notice - have heard that is good.

Same thing on books - I love to read something that surprises me and with plenty of motivated action (not just nonstop action that means nothing).

Carol Burnside said...

In-depth characterization is what draws me to watch a show time and time again. Not just strong characters, but multi-faceted. Those characters who leave us wanting to know more, whose backstory is doled out in tiny pieces to keep us coming back. Each piece that unfolds makes me love the character more.

CiCi Barnes said...

I love it when a fall in love with a character and their life is revealed in tidbits, slow and easy.

On NCIS, one of my absolute favs, things happen and you wonder why Gibbs deals with it like he does. Then they go and reveal something from his past. You go, aha, so that's why . . . . I'd like to do that in my books.



Debbie Kaufman said...

Susan: I'm with you on the Linda Howard characters!

Dianna: I've really enjoyed Burn Notice. Often times a lot of episodes accumulate on my DVR before we take time to sit down and watch, but it is one of the ones we always get to!

Debbie Kaufman said...

Carol: One of the things I like about The Closer is that you have this woman who deals with hardened criminals, yet is still afraid to tell her Daddy that she is living with someone (before the wedding) and has this huge hangup on her sick cat. Wonderful contradictions.

CiCi: I agree, as long as they keep that flow. NCIS is one of our favorites too. Nielsen says it's #3 on broadcast tv right now. Don't you wish we'd get a little more love interest with Gibbs?

Marilyn Baron said...

I always wondered how you got to become a Nielsen family. We should be one because we watch a lot of TV.

I also love The Closer and Saving Grace which comes on right after that. And NCIS is one of my favorites. I just started watching Burn Notice and like it. And I like True Blood. I was thinking about that this morning. It is kind of depraved and gritty but I really like the characters (some of them) and that and the great writing, is what makes the show.

I am also waiting on baited breath for Suzanne Brockmann's latest to come out tomorrow. I also have on my list Nora Roberts has a book coming out tomorrow "Public Secrets" but she just had Black Hills published, so I don't know if this is a hardback, new release or a reprint. Does anyone know?

Marilyn Baron


Debbie Kaufman said...

Hi Marilyn:
According to Amazon, it's paperback. As to becoming a Nielsen family, I don't know. I think they have to contact you. I can't ask my friends because they don't talk about it. Long story, but I just happened to stumble upon the fact that they were one. When I go to the Nielsen website,, it says that they don't take volunteers. Maybe one day my friends can talk about it and I'll let you know.

Donnell said...

Debbie, I love opinion posts! I'll tell you what I can't be bothered with and it's reality shows. I have zero, zero interest in watching the networks feed off of people's pain. It's kind of a stepping ladder of Jerry Springer in my opinion. But shows like the Mentalist, the Closer, will always have me tuning in, when and if I have time, LOL. If my book is calling to me, I can't sit still long enough to watch them.

Rita Herron said...

Thanks for the mention, Debbie.
And I love THE CLOSER as well - she's a great character. I think character and plot both make me turn to a TV show or movie, but like you, if I don't care about the character, I lose interest. I think Grace in Saving Grace is an interesting character. I like the plots for Medium, but really love the chubby little girl character. And the very first book character I fell in love with as a kid was Pippi Longstocking! Rita

Debbie Kaufman said...

Exactly Donnell. I just can't relate to "reality" shows. No offense to anyone who likes them, but they just turn me off.

Hi Rita: Yes, Grace is definitely a character and a half! I was kind of surprised that I liked her, but I do. I liked Pippi too, but mostly stuck with my Nancy Drew.

Debbie Kaufman said...

Oh, and Donnell and all: I love the new Lie To Me. I watch it and call it writing research for all the body language information.

Tami Brothers said...

Hey Debbie,

Thanks for the info on the Neilson TV rating thing. I have been one of those who do the diaries in the past and always wondered how to get in deeper. I guess you have to be "chosen"...grin...

Sorry to say, but I am a huge reality junky. My hubby laughed at me when I first started watching Survivor. Now he is into Whale Wars and all those others that even I don't watch...hehehe.... Even though I know they are mindless, I still enjoy some of them.

I'm a cover type of girl as well as certain authors. I will buy a book because the cover draws me in, but I always buy the books by my fav authors even if they don't sound all that appealing. I know the author is proven and will go for it every time.

Thanks for the enlightning post, Debbie!!!


Anonymous said...

I only watch a few shows faithfully. I like SYTYCD because I have seen such beautiful performances. I like the characters on Rescue Me - they are all so flawed, yet they do redeem themselves at times.
What I don't like is most reality shows. I guess I am humor impaired too because I just don't get many of the so called comedies. If I was chosen to be a Neilsen family there would be very little left to watch. :)

Barbara P.

Linsey Lanier said...

Great post! I always wanted to know someone who had one of those boxes. Can't believe they're still doing it - and using technology from 1987!

I don't always watch a lot of TV (tune in next week to find out why), but I'm a rabid CSI fan - watch all three and can't wait for the new seasons to start. I also watch shows like 48 hours. My reason? Research for my suspense novels, LOL. At least it started out that way, but now I'm hooked.

I think what really does it for me is truly great writing. The best examples right now, IMO are Mad Men and Breaking Bad. I know. I'm weird. :)

I also love Suzanne Brockmann and Linda Howard.


Mary Marvella said...

Wow, Debbie, interesting. I love characters that don't fit molds. Yes I like The closer and Ghost whisperer. I even watch some of the older shows I missed years ago. As long as a character isn't clueless or shallow, I'll watch at least one show.

I'm still a sucker for a book! I have my favs in GRW (No names here but I have full collections for some of o9ur ladies. I love women's fiction about women facing new lives in their 40's and later. I just finished Heather Graham's The Dead Room and loved it.

I love Beta heroes, too. I can't abide a wounded Alpha character who whines about something that happened 30-40 years ago. People who have had crappy lives get over them and are still likable.

Debbie Kaufman said...

Hey Tami: A lot of my family members love Survivor! I watched one season and it was interesting, but just not for more than one season.

Barbara: I guess that's why they do random choices. I can't imagine what would survive based on what I watch. Although, if you factor in the rest of my family, it would be pretty diverse.

Debbie Kaufman said...

Hi Linsey: I love CSI, but now that Grissom is gone, I don't watch the original much.

Mary, I agree, but I'd extend it to say that I don't like whiners in any of my characters.

Anonymous said...


Good blog! I will admit in the past that I have gravitated towards a book in the store because the cover catches my eye. But knowing that the author doesn't control the cover I have been much better about digging for the good read rather than the cool cover.

In our home SiFi channel is on if Matt has the control, Curious George for Isaac, and Closer, Mentalist, Survivor for me.

Caroline Z.