Success is never giving up, or so they say. Failure, on the other hand, is often signaled by an end, so much so that the cancellation of a beloved show, and its resulting heartbreak, can leave us wondering where things went wrong, how it could have "failed." Not all failures are marked by an ending, but that does make them harder to identify. For this theme week, I want to consider those failures that last, persist, or even thrive. Nielsen’s de-facto monopoly, and the larger culture of TV ratings it represents, is precisely one of these lasting failures. While a huge market success, Nielsen succeeds despite—or perhaps because of—its persistent failure to reflect not just who is actually watching TV, but how. Nielsen prides itself on not measuring "what people like," foregoing pleasure or engagement for a focus on the station to which a television is tuned. The company even goes so far as to frame this characteristic as inherently democratic. Whether you watch the Jersey Shore to laugh or to cry, whether Animal Planet is always on for you or your dog—none of that matters. And while the pleas of TV fans take on modes that might well be compared to social movements on behalf of a political cause, the measurement system as it exists simply cannot register them—in fact persists in large part for that failing.
TV ratings aren't just Nielsen’s creation, and they don’t only exist after a television show is already produced; rather, the "idea" of the ratings, and the drive to get "good" ratings, exists at the heart of production cultures themselves. Ratings-as-culture have become so instantiated as part of what constitutes television that they have both symbolic and material effects on how workers in the industry think about themselves, their precarious labor, and the programming they create; they are at the very root of industrial narratives and mythmaking practices; they shape the way audiences and fans feel connected to—or disconnected from—cultural texts. We could just say, "It’s not you…It’s Nielsen," and leave it at that, but ratings are also part of something much bigger. Changing the way we measure TV's failures would involve changing the stories we tell ourselves about what TV is, and what TV viewing means. The "magic" of the Nielsen ratings is that they are a story no one seems to believe, and yet no one can flat-out deny.