"It's Not You...It's Nielsen": Cancellation Heartbreak and Measurement Magic

Curator's Note

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.


As you say, one of the biggest failings of the Nielsen system is the way that it shuts out the possibility for intervention by organized groups of fans. Even if a group of fans crashed a netowork's server by clamoring for episodes or information, this would never translate to ratings. In a way, the Nielsen system, intentionally or not, works to remind fans that their conviction that they can affect the direction of the narrative is ultimately a little delusional.

At the same time, the "it's not you, it's Nielsen" narrative is a way to maintain the emotional bond between a fan base and an authorial figure even when things don't go the fans' way. The fan and the author are united against Nielsen and the networks, and the show is thus protected from fans' anger. One of the stories that Nielsen ratings keep going might be this idea that, w/r/t the shows I love, it's me and the writer against the world...

Anne--I love that you refer to it as the "it's not you, it's Nielsen" narrative. I've been thinking about the stories surrounding Nielsen for some time now, and it's great to get feedback about the power this narrative has. Your thoughts about the bond between writer and fan (which might also be between the show as a larger entity and the fan) being maintained by the same narrative that also allows the ratings to persist is really interesting and, I think, right on. 

On the subject of Nielsen shutting out the possibility for fan intervention, I really get a kick out of the line in the vid where she hopes against hope "maybe one day you'll come back and be my Family Guy." At the same time as this is a play on the post break up "We can't be together now, but maybe someday..." sentiment, it also taps into the way that Family Guy is so often held up as THE example of fan activity post-cancellation effecting the decision to bring back a show. While that must have been great for Family Guy fans, it also seems to be the one-in-a-million example that justifies the persistence of a flawed system, rather like the mythic tale of "that one couple" that broke up but got back together and lived happily ever after. For me, it functions more as a symbol of false hope rather than a story of fan victory, another narrative that functions to maintain the status quo.

What a great vid, which I hadn't previously seen (I especially love the My So-Called Life shout-outs).  But I'm also really happy to see your critical insights about Nielsen.   "They are a story no one seems to believe, and yet no one can flat-out deny" so well captures their bizarre positioning.  I always tell students that the ratings are a fiction that everyone just agrees to go along with because if they did not the whole system would collapse.  Thanks for the intriguing thoughts!

Thanks Elana for the generous words! I am always so (happily) surprised at the fascination Nielsen and its ratings can generate with my undergrad students. The more we get into the nitty-gritty of it all, the more they are shocked that this is really "how it works." It's such a great example of an entire cultural sector agreeing to suspend disbelief to preserve the system, as you say...and what's so interesting to me are the ways in which that disbelief then comes to shape beliefs about the way things are, the way they have to be, what can (or can't) ever be etc. I tend not to be interested in the question of whether the ratings work per se (ie are they right or wrong...because for me a "representative" sample will never be "right"...a small part of the group standing in for and speaking for the whole). I'd rather think about how the ratings *work on us*--and I like this vid for getting that kind of discussion going. (Oh, and those My So-Called Life moments definitely pull at my heart strings as well.)


Ryan, I'm so glad you have highlighted this aspect of the industry that seemingly identifies failure.  Ratings invite a discussion of industry decision makers, advertising, audiences, showrunners, and fans.  It is one of those objects that allows a pretty nuanced discussion of TV across its various stakeholders.   

My question about ratings today is the issue of new media.  I'm too much of a TV historian to imagine an incumbent power like Nielsen losing its grip on the industry's narrative of failure, but I do hope to continue to see new media upset that narrative--if only as a reminder of its constructed nature.  From the VCR to the DVR to multiplatform viewing today, Nielsen has fallen behind technological developments repeatedly, yet it has not lost the importance of its imprimatur.  Do you see any viable challenges for Nielsen on the horizon, whether based on "greater accuracy" in their reporting, new types of coherent (industry-friendly) narratives, or opportunities for a counter narrative that may introduce new methods to define success and failure within the TV industry?

Karen, first, thanks for curating such a great theme week; and thanks for the thoughtful comment post as well. Nielsen actually does talk a pretty good game about being up on the latest technological developments. In recent years it was Project Apollo (notably a massive economic failure) which tried out portable-people-meters, and A2M2 (Anytime Anywhere Measurement plan), as well as Nielsen's most recent focus to capture viewing on Three Screens (TV, computer, phone). As I noted in a response above, for me, these moves to measure the representative sample with greater "accuracy" doesn't mean "better" ratings, since the system is still functioning on the same basic premise. But these moves on Nielsen's part do signal that they understand that they can't maintain a foothold on this industry if they continue to pretend that TV is just something that happens on a television set, at home. And yet the company also continues to point to research that provides numbers like 99% of TV viewing still happens on at TV set at home. I guess it's in their best interest to play both sides. I do think that new media has already, and will continue to, upset Nielsen's narrative of failure, as you say. But I also see larger efforts at work in the industry to disavow the significance (at least economic) of new media. Labor talks continue to inspire claims that no one really knows what new media is worth, and thus questions remain about how its creators and actors etc deserve to be compensated for their creative labor. As I write this I wonder if there might be more groups than Nielsen that would have a vested interest in not measuring new media viewing practices?

 Similar to Karen's response above, I appreciate that you point out Nielsen's ratings as sites of cultural discourse, particularly, as others note above, the way their very failure to be seen as authentically representative of TV-viewing habits is rearticulated enough to ensure Neilsen's importance in television discourses.  

Your post is particularly appropriate as it coincides with some early rumblings of HBO possibly developing an American Gods adaptation.  Most articles I've seen about that possibility share the idea that the first step toward such a series depends on Game of Thrones's ratings success (as a fantasy epic, like American Gods).  Nielsen ratings construct culture even around television that hasn't yet been created.

Thank you for this thoughtful comment, Charlotte. I haven't been keeping up with the American Gods buzz you mention (I will now), but what a perfect example of what I was trying to articulate in this post. Ratings shape not just how we perceive what already exists, but also texts that have yet to be created...even when the "failure" of the metrics being used is taken as a given for most people. For me, this shows that the ratings are so much more than "measurement."

Great post and some really thought-provoking comments. Just thought I would chime in to follow Karen’s questions about the potential impact of new media. Without hijacking this TV focused conversation, suffice it to say that the video game industry is at something of a measurement crisis point, with the entrenched NPD (who play a Nielsen-like role) under fire from some of the biggest game publishers for not adequately measuring the digital distribution of games.

Bringing this back to TV, the switchover to digital should in some ways make measurement much more accurate as every transmission is certainly logged in a server bank somewhere, but this brings all new problems. Making sense of all the data is one. Privacy is another (as the emerging iPhone scandal indicates). And, as Ryan suggests, there are plenty of established groups who would rather not have such accurate info (and perhaps it’s worth considering who these groups are and what they stand to gain).

Perhaps most troubling though is who owns and has access to this data, especially when you consider a company like Comcast. In the video game industry, this is a huge problem as there is increased fragmentation towards systems with proprietary audience viewing/purchasing information. Charlotte’s comment is especially intriguing, not least because HBO, as a paid service, is in a unique position to not have to rely on Nielsen ratings as much as other programs. If Game of Thrones sets off a huge subscription spike, then HBO is likely to see it as a success regardless of viewer numbers (though not if there’s a subsequent cancellation spike). This info, though, is HBO’s to know and it is up to them to spin it however they please. If Nielsen tries to move towards a more “accurate” data-centric system, what happens if HBO (or, say, Apple) won’t play ball?


I agree, the Nielsen system is a flawed system. Not only because it doesn't take the viewers' reaction to the show into question, but it doesn't accurately determine how many people are watching per tv. A great number of people choose to watch in groups with their neighbors, family, friends, etc. on the same television. Also, a number of people choose to watch their shows on the internet, as opposed to paying for a cable/sattelite bill, and the Nielsen rating system doesn't take those numbers into concideration (although that might be different now, my information isn't totally up to date). In order for this system to work, it needs to send surveys to viewers asking for viewer feedback about their feelings, viewing habbits, etc. (this does exist to some degree, but since fan retaliation is still the biggest way to get a cancelled show back on the air, it seems the networks dont take these surveys into much consideration) and, if they don't already, the system must also account for internet viewers as well. 

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