238 – the magic number in Australian TV ratings

January 29, 2008

All this week television networks, production companies and program makers will be crossing their fingers as they jump the gun and roll out a selection of new shows before the start of the official ratings period. Consequently, executives will be rushing to their desks for the ratings and hoping for a number they can be proud of… So how do the numbers get there?

With all the technology around, it’s not as sophisticated as you might think. Thankfully it’s a step above the system used for radio where listeners fill in books from memory. Having produced at a station where listeners would phone up insisting to speak to Richard Stubbs immediately even though he’d left 8 years earlier, never gave me much reason to trust the pen and paper system.

Television ratings are calculated via information gathered from ratings boxes or what AGB Nielsen call peoplemeters. Householders key in what they are watching and who is in the room and this information is collected 24/7 from every television they own. For their efforts these esteemed viewers accrue rewards points. Depending on how long they are part of this proud voluntary position (which can last for up to four years), they cash in their points for things like toasters, blenders, electric toothbrushes – anything that doesn’t take them away from the TV for too long. There is a significant emphasis put on choosing a cross section of households that accurately represent the entire population of Australia. Demographics, how many televisions they own and whether they have pay TV is all taken into account. Once the peoplemeter is installed their viewing habits are beamed down the phone lines in the wee hours of the morning.

By sun up Blackberries are buzzing and press releases are being issued by the program makers. On top of the raw data, it’s worth visiting a site like ebroadcast, where it’s common for all commercial networks to claim the night as theirs by adding terms like ‘target demographic’, ‘commercial share’ or ‘previous timeslot average’. What everyone broadcasting in primetime wants is 1 million viewers. Of course, events like Big Brother or Idol, sporting finals and nightly news are expected to pull in a whole lot more. But a million is the minimum for anything else – from Deal or No Deal to NCIS repeats (which consistently beguile us all by rating above 1 million).

So how many ratings boxes need to be tuned in to the same program for the execs to celebrate? From past training sessions I’ve learnt that there are approximately 5000 peoplemeters – 3000 in the five largest state capitals, plus another 2000 spread out over the rest of the country. The Australian population is just over 21 million (as revealed by the ABS late 2007). So each ratings box represents 4200 head of population. One million divided by 4200 equals 238.

It sounds so easy. And even if these early attempts at grabbing viewers work, getting them to come back is the real challenge. Because even though we know if people are watching, we don’t know until the following week whether they liked what they saw.


One Response to “238 – the magic number in Australian TV ratings”

  1. themolk Says:

    Oooh… I love it when you get all statistical on me. The numbers across stuff like this do and don’t surprise me (how do so many people watch NCIS repeats?!).

    What was more surprising was the advertising $ stats out today saying Channels 7 and 10 (respectively) beat the newly crowned “We heart TV” crowd. What a turn up for the books. KP would be turning over in his grave if he wasn’t off gambling with Elvis. Go figure!

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