How to Improve Broadcast TV Ratings
By Elizabeth Falwell
Updated September 22, 2017
There are two different types of television. The first is local programming; this includes your local news broadcasts. The second type is on the network level; this includes morning and evening news programs and prime time comedies and dramas. Both types of programming are evaluated on a ratings system, administered by Nielsen Media Research. Nielsen uses handwritten programming logs in conjunction with automated "people readers" (boxes attached to your TV that take note of which programs you watch and when) to "rate" a certain show's popularity; having the highest rating for your time slot is the equivalent of winning that time slot. Since advertising revenue is based on a program's Nielsen rating, improving a show's ratings are critical to its ultimate financial success.
Identify the needs and wants of your target audience by organizing a focus group. Different programs have different "target" viewers; some programs (such as dramas) are geared to women, while sports programming is designed to attract male viewers. These are called "demographics." One way to identify the wants of your target demographic is to hold a focus group. This can be done online or in person. It involves gathering a small group of people -- typically from your target audience -- and asking them what they like or dislike about a certain program. The program's directors can then make changes based on the results of the focus group.
Change your talent. For a news program, this would mean changing your anchors or your meteorologist; for an entertainment program, this would mean changing the stars of the show. The popularity of a given personality is rated based on something called "Q" scores. When a TV personality has a low "Q" score, it means he is not liked by the viewing public. Sometimes firing this individual can lead to an increase in ratings.
Take chances with your broadcast. In a 2008 case study by Tracey Robinson-English, TV news veteran Hank Price credited his longevity in the business to the ability to try new things. Price acknowledged that sometimes a new venture will backfire and lead to lower ratings, but the benefit of being the first to try a new format or brand can result in long-term dominance in a particular market or time slot. A new format could include eliminating the presence of reporters during a TV news broadcast, as Price's NBC affiliate did in 2010. Show creators may also choose to rework a program's branding, such as a station's decision to switch from an "Action News" format that focused on crime and car accidents to a more community-based brand that focuses on politics and education.
Switch the program's time slot. Certain time slots are notorious for being the toughest to win in television. The industry website Buzzsugar.com lists Monday nights at eight and nine o'clock, Thursday nights at eight and nine o'clock and Sunday nights at eight o'clock as the toughest time slots to win on 2010. If your show is going up against a ratings powerhouse (such as the CBS hits "CSI" or "NCIS"), moving the program to a less-competitive time slot could give it a ratings boost.
Change the way the program is advertised. Conventional options include commercials to show previews of an upcoming episode, or placing a large color ad in a magazine or newspaper. But newer options -- such as utilizing the web and mobile phones, which can more specifically target the show's key demographic -- are reinventing the way shows are advertised. Short messages, containing simple text or even a video clip, can be sent to viewers to give them a preview of an upcoming show.
Hire an outside consultant to evaluate your program. These individuals can look at a specific show through an objective, third-party lens and give you the best idea of what is working -- and more importantly, what isn't working -- in a given program. The consultant may focus on the appearance of your program's stars -- something as seemingly minor as their cosmetic appearance -- or the consultant may look at the other visual elements that go into a broadcast, such as an out-dated set or graphics package. Some consultants may also work with the show's writers to improve the content relayed to viewers during the program.
Examine your program's ratings over an extended period of time. Nielsen Media Research measures a program's rating on a daily basis, but focuses on the ratings during four key months: February, May, July and November. These four months are known as "sweeps" months; a station or network's sales department will base its quarterly advertising rates on the Nielsen ratings from the most recent "sweeps" period. Rather than comparing ratings from May and November, compare year-to-year ratings (for example, November ratings from the past three years). Because viewers' habits change based on the season (they're more likely to watch TV in the fall and winter, when the weather is colder and the sun sets earlier), comparing year-to-year ratings is a more accurate way to assess the long-term successes of a particular program.
Understand that few programs are gaining viewers in today's culture, particularly at the local programming level. A 2001 study by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism found nearly eight out of ten local news stations had suffered ratings losses over the previous year.
Exercise patience. It can take time for a viewers to switch their TV viewing habits; these changes might not be obvious over a few months, but rather, over a year or more.
Be true to your brand. While making a significant change to a program can work every now and then, constantly switching up the stars and theme of the show can be jarring to viewers, causing them to lose interest.
Elizabeth Falwell has been writing for the TV news industry since 2005. Her work has appeared on WXII 12 News, WMGT 41 News, NewParent.com and multiple parenting blogs. A graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School at Syracuse University, Falwell holds a Master of Science in broadcast journalism.