Compiled by the Nielsen Media Research, an arm of the A.C. Nielsen Co., the Nielsen ratings measure television viewership. TV networks and affiliate stations use this information to determine advertising rates, or to justify extortionate rates for shows like the Super Bowl. The ratings are often criticized but remain the bedrock of the television industry worldwide (comments below deal with the U.S. system only).

Nielsen numbers deliver lots of information broken down by demographic, which is where you learn, for example, that women 18-35 really hate Manimal. The overall ratings boil down to three numbers:

  • The actual Rating is the percentage of households watching a particular show; today, each ratings point represents around 950,000 homes. Specials can crack the 50 rating occasionally, but only three episodic shows have done so: The M*A*S*H finale, Dallas' Who Shot J.R.? episode, and the conclusion of Roots.
  • The Share is the percentage of TV sets in use that are watching the given show. "Who shot J.R.?" drew a 76 share -- meaning 76 percent of people watching TV at that time were tuned in to Dallas. This doesn't take into account the people like me who only watched the ending.
  • Finally, Nielsen provides an estimate on the raw number of households watching. This number keeps growing, which means it can't be used for historical comparisons. That's why reports tend to emphasize the rating or the share.
Votes are tallied from a few thousand households through a system that's admittedly antiquated (read more about it here). A "Nielsen family" is given a device that monitors what channel the TV is tuned to, with family members keeping a written log as extra evidence (to catch times when the TV is on but no one's watching.) They've developed boxes to monitor which person is watching a given TV set, but you switch the boxes on and off manually -- as with the log, it's something you might forget to do.

So Nielsens aren't very precise, but they seem to give a reliable gauge of what's happening in viewership, and they catch the obvious winners like Seinfeld and the Super Bowl. And they do reflect important trends, such as the decline in ratings for individual shows due to the proliferation of cable channels.

More importantly, the TV and advertising industries are hooked on these ratings like crack cocaine and aren't likely to give them up -- in fact, A.C. Nielsen expanded the idea to the Web with a scheme called NetRatings.

Trivia Time!

Answers are contained in the hard links. Don't click them (and don't look at the soft links!) until you've made your guess!

(All questions deal with the Rating, not the Share or Number of Households.)
  • Most TV buffs know the three highest-rated series episodes of all time: M*A*S*H finale, Who Shot J.R., and The Fugitive finale. Which series' finale ranks fourth?

  • Only one movie ranks in the top 10 Nielsen ratings of all time. Which movie?

  • Separately, name the highest-rated made for TV movie (here's a hint).

  • Obviously, football dominates the top-rated shows of all time. Only one other sport has ever gotten ratings as high as a Super Bowl -- which one? (And when?)

  • Despite the huge number of miniseries coming out, none have come close to the ratings of the first one ever. Name that miniseries. Bonus question (and the hardest one here, IMHO): What miniseries ranks second?

-- Entertainment Weekly:
-- ... Highest TV ratings ever, taken out of almanancs.
-- A lot of you may dispute the answer to the first question, but remember: Cable and VCRs are cutting into ratings. For the record, the show you're probably thinking of doesn't come close to #4 -- it got only a 41.3 rating and 58 share. The URL at contains the full AP story about that episode, with some historical info for comparison.

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