April 5, 2007
College Viewers in Nielsen Ratings Make Impact, But What Is the Value of Such a Small Sample?

According to the latest numbers from Magna Global, in their analysis of Nielsen figures since the inclusion of college students have been added into the mix, primetime television viewership has reportedly increased by 12 percent, while daytime viewership is up 5 percent and late night is up 9 percent.

Perhaps these numbers are not quite that surprising, given that counting new viewers had to indicate a rise in viewership to some degree, but these very few college students out there will make a huge impact on brands targeting 18-to-24-year-olds, the most likely students to live in a college dorm. According to the Magna Global analysis, ABC gained more than any other network.

Grey's Anatomy jumped three full ratings points in 18-24-year-olds, and several other ABC shows that attract a college demographic has done well. Late night viewership showed particular growth for both the CBS and NBC lineups as well. Not surprisingly, cable networks targeting younger viewers have also seen huge increases, including Turner Broadcasting networks like TBS and Adult Swim on Cartoon Network and MTV Networks' channels MTV, VH1, and Comedy Central. Both MTVN and Turner Broadcasting are C3 corporate partners.

Jon Lafayette with TelevisionWeek writes, "The added viewership could be a boon to the networks because advertisers generally pay premium rates to reach young viewers."

Gary Bouregault writes, "Over the short term, probably what's important with all of this is that in the 18-24 demo, advertiser will have a much more accurate measurement to market their wares with."

But wait? "Much more accurate?" Back in January, I wrote, "The sample will be from Nielsen families who agreed to let a meter be put in at the student's dorm room. Approximately 450 families from the Nielsen sample include college students, and about 30 percent of them agreed to let their students be involved."

I was not a math major and in fact haven't had a math class since my senior year of high school, but 30 percent of the 450 families who do have college students means something like 135 college students, correct? I know that the choices are somewhat limited on college campuses, but it seems pretty idiosyncratic that the number of American television viewers who are on college campuses will be represented by about 135 students. I may not have done a lot of quantitative surveys in my time here at C3, but that sounds fairly unimpressive for a splintered viewing audience.

Nevertheless, it is better than what the Nielsen's offered before--nothing. And it's no surprise that shows like Grey's Anatomy and House are hits among college audiences. At the least, this may at least mean that college audiences will finally have a vote when it comes to television programming, but I don't know how I feel about the fate of millions in the hands of that population of 135.



I hate to say it, but this is not an atypical sample size for Nielsen. The standard core sample for Nielsen is 5,000 households, representing 110,000,000 actual television households, a sampling rate of .005%! It's more complicated than that, but the bottom line is that programming decisions are based upon a very small sample with a margin of error that is not factored into the use of the ratings numbers. The more you look at the ratings system, the less reliable it appears.


Jason, I would think that such a small sample would have been somewhat more reliable when the choices for viewing, including independent channels, were fewer than 10, and with just three major networks. With fragmented TV viewing in the hundreds now, I keep thinking when I see the teen demo for a show changing .1 that it must mean one kid wasn't home in time to watch her show this week...