Inherent Flaws in Sports Nielsen Ratings

Not exactly a shocking headline, but with the playoffs bringing TV ratings to the forefront it’s relevant. Every news outlet that reports TV ratings for sports events documents both the rating and number of viewers, usually adding the annual change in each number.

Maybe it’s a pet peeve of mine, or I’m making too big a deal of it, however the annual change in the number of viewers is a biased statistic that often masks poor ratings. The Nielsen rating is based on the percent of TV households that are tuned in, a relative measure, while the number of viewers is an absolute measure.

While the viewership number includes households with more than one viewer, the number of Nielsen TV households has grown slightly year over year, which will inherently boost the viewership number. I’m admittedly making a few assumptions here, as I’m not intimately familiar with the intricacies of the Nielsen process. Looking at the year over year ratings and viewership numbers, the only explanations are: more TV households, a change in viewership patterns, and/or change in Nielsen’s viewership calculation.

In any of the above cases, the total viewer number is not a good year over year indicator because it ignores the relative changes in the system. A better metric is share – the percent of TV households watching TV at the time that are viewing a program. Though programming faces different competition each year, its a better indicator of what the population is watching.

With all the inherent flaws of the Nielsen sampling process that the media industry has come to accept – for the time being, at least – harping on this point may not be worth it. But when ratings are decreasing and every story at there makes a point to mention that viewership is flat or viewership is up, the stat must be taken with a grain of salt. The lesson – some sports are struggling on TV more than they lead on.

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