25,000 people are good enough: The hegemonic impacts of the nielsen television ratings system

The [Nielsen] overnight numbers widely reported by the media—and Hollywood’s general barometer of a show’s health—can account for as little as 25 percent of the eventual audience for, say, an FX comedy. – Josef Adalian, New York Magazine[1]

Imagine you watch every new episode of your favorite television series (for this example, NBC’s comedy Community) live (in this case, Thursdays at 8 p.m.). At some point, you hear that the series is not faring well in the Nielsen ratings, the measurement used by the television industry to determine who is watching what and when, so you convince 10 of your friends to tune in. Those friends like the series and then convince 10 more people and so on and so forth. But after that large expansion in viewership, you discover that the Nielsen ratings for Community have not increased. In fact, they have decreased. How is that possible? You single-handedly started a chain reaction that led to a million new viewers tuning in each week. Unfortunately, no one informed you that unless you and your million friends are a part of the designated “Nielsen families” that have the responsibility of writing in journals or hooking up separate set-top boxes to track viewing habits, your viewing of Community means nothing.

As it is constructed today, the Nielsen ratings system only tracks the viewership of those special families—of which there are 25,000 households[2] compared to the estimated 116 million total households with televisions—and then uses them as a representative sample for how everyone in the United States is watching.[3] The Nielsen ratings most-often used do not take into account viewing on Digital Video Recorders (DVRs), online streaming platforms like Hulu.com, paid downloads from the iTunes or Amazon stores and illegal streams or downloads. In short, the measurement of television consumption considered the most important by the networks, the advertising industry and viewers includes only a minuscule fraction of the overall audience.

Despite apparent faults in the system and countless calls for a new process, the Nielsen numbers survive by slowly adapting to new developments in viewing, so that although the all-important overnight ratings continue to decrease each new television season, no replacement has been created since the Nielsen system came to be in 1950. Therefore, the continued use of the Nielsen ratings system to define what is a successful television program in the United States is an explicit example of hegemony in practice, an example that when implemented,  perpetuates dominant cultural messages such as democracy and capitalism and particular story-based ideologies like justice, heterosexual partnerships, traditional gender roles, science, among others.

Hegemony origins and its application to the Nielsens

The concept of hegemony is crucial in Marxist theory and changed over time from an ideal entrenched in economics to one with complexities that also includes ideology and culture. Marx and Friedrich Engels popularized the idea in their discussion of class conflicts, suggesting:

Once the ruling ideas have been separated from the ruling individuals…it is easy to abstract from these various ideas “the Idea,” the thought, etc., as the dominant force in history, and thus to consider all these separate ideas and concepts as “forms of self-determination.”[4]

Marx and Engels’ developed the idea that ruling ideology works best when detached from the apparent ruling class that creates it. Later Marxist Louis Althusser attempted to devalue the supposed economic determinism found in Marx and Engels’ work (something Engels later refuted)[5] through his Repressive State Apparatuses (government, police, military) and Ideological State Apparatuses (schools, family) model. Althusser argues that “No class can hold State power over a long period without at the same time exercising its hegemony over and in the State Ideological Apparatuses.”[6] However, Althusser’s arguments rely too much on functionalism in the sense that while he is attempting to argue that ideology is separate from economics in the relationship between RSAs and ISAs, he also argues that economy actually determines the power exerted by the ideological factions. [7] As Strinati suggests, Althusser’s concept of hegemony works more as a confirmation of economic determinism than a destruction of it.[8]

For the purposes of this paper, I will be applying Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony because although it also includes an emphasis on ideology, Gramsci’s argument differs from Althusser’s by suggesting the relationship between the subordinate and dominant blocs is more of a conversation—or at least the appearance of one—than a direct, cause-and-effect interaction. Therefore, for Gramsci, the economic powers do not have as much of a top-down influence on everyone else, precisely because of ideology.[9] He refutes the supposed “useless” ideas of ideology and stresses that social struggles are shaped by more than class-based economics:

Ideology is identified as distinct from the structure, and it is asserted that it is not ideology that changes the structures but vice versa; it is asserted that a given political situation is “ideological” – i.e. that it is not sufficient to change the structure, although it thinks it can do so; it is asserted that it is useless, stupid, etc.[10]

In Gramsci’s view, economic issues alone will not spur subordinate blocs to rise up, as there are political and cultural implications involved as well. If the subordinate group’s revolutions fail, it is because they cannot transform economic issues into political and ideological discourse in a way that convinces members of the group to see faults in the dominant bloc’s ideologies.[11] Thus, Gramsci defines hegemony as being characterized by a “combination of force and consent… [Where] the attempt is always made to ensure that force will appear to be based on the consent of the majority [the lower subordinate bloc].”[12]

Strinati notes in his discussion of Gramsci that hegemony is more of a cultural and ideological process than one of domination.[13] In hegemony, the subordinate group accepts the values and practices of the dominant group not through indoctrination, but because they have personal reasons to do so. This consensual agreement occurs because the dominant group allows for concessions when the subordinate group takes issue with specific problems in the hegemonic culture, making the subordinate bloc feel as if they are part of an ongoing conversation. Gramsci refers to this as the formation of a “compromise equilibrium.”[14] Through the execution of hegemony, the ideals of the dominant hegemonic bloc seem natural to those in the subordinate bloc.

The relationship between Nielsen, television networks, advertising agencies and viewers at home serves as a complicated example of hegemony where the influence of the dominant bloc is powered by more than just economics. In this relationship the dominant hegemonic bloc is made up of Nielsen and the television and advertising industries while the viewing public makes up the subordinate bloc. However, the ways in which all these factions interact creates a complex situation where even among the powers inside the dominant bloc, there are scuffles. No matter the struggle, the use of the Nielsen ratings has implications that reach beyond business and has ideological impacts on society. The following paragraphs will trace how the relationship between these blocs results in hegemonic practices and will explore the dominant cultural messages furthered by those practices.

Hegemonic structures inside the television industry

The television industry needs money to fund its productions and since the medium’s origin, it has garnered said funds through a relationship with advertising. To make certain there is a quality return on their investment, advertisers require some sort of measurement. Viewers at home want their television to be both as good and as cheap as possible. Theoretically, the Nielsen ratings assist in solving all these issues and so the three groups have agreed that Nielsen’s system is the way to operate.

As members of the dominant bloc, Nielsen, advertisers and television networks have worked together to define what it is to be a successful television series, while the viewers at home have historically had little say in that conversation – but they have not cared to. The incentive to revolt against these powers as a way to keep favorite series on the air does not seem worth it to individuals dealing with their own issues. When issues have arisen, the giant data provider has been willing to make incremental changes that create the sense of evolution in the eyes of both industries and the people at home.

For example, when Nielsen first started providing viewing data, it relied on members of chosen households to fill out diaries detailing their viewing habits. Both industries complained, leading Nielsen to introduce Set Meters, which transmit viewing data directly from a television to Nielsen through a telephone line, and People Meters, which accomplish similar goals but are attached to each television in the household as a way to gauge demographic information.[15] More recently, networks, advertisers and ever-savvy and invested fans took Nielsen to task for not taking into account the viewing done on DVRs, and in 2005 the company appropriated that new form of viewing into a new set of data.[16] Similar discussions are happening today in reference to the burgeoning online viewing market.[17] Finally, often when a start-up company with new metrics for viewership pop up, Nielsen purchases them and integrates their research into the usual standards. This occurred most recently with NetRatings, a company that measured online page views and published rankings that most advertisers used when buying space online.[18]

Thus, though there have been complaints from fans missing their favorite canceled series, condemnations from industry critics[19] and threats of support for a new rating system provided by a new company from the television and advertising industries,[20] the Nielsen ratings have done just enough to stay around. These alterations satisfy advertisers and networks who then spread the word of the developments down to viewers in the subordinate bloc in a way that makes everyone involved feel more comfortable that data provided by Nielsen is legitimate and worthwhile.

Dominant hegemonic values: Democracy and consumerism

Although this complex relationship between multiple industries and general viewers at home creates a framework that can be thought of as creating hegemony, as Gramsci suggests, there must be dominant cultural values and ideologies furthered by said framework to create a true hegemonic relationship.[21] The most obvious values promoted by these connections are democracy, consumerism and capitalism. While there have been issues with Nielsen ratings and their inability to capture the extent of viewing, the dominant bloc’s continued use of them tells the subordinate bloc the data is worthwhile.

This acceptance creates a situation where the members of the subordinate bloc feel like their viewership helps a series succeed and they believe their choices matter. When journalists report on series that are close to cancelation, those series’ creators often take to the web, urging fans to watch. Chuck creator Josh Schwartz uses Twitter to promote his NBC series every Monday with tweets like “Tonight’s Chuck features @nicolerichie, Stone Cold and Stacey Kiebler. It’s a great episode and the last few minutes will leave u [hanging].”[22] Online fan campaigns take similar paths, all hoping to achieve the same goal: getting viewers to watch live. There is an overarching sense throughout the industry and down to the viewers that those with the remotes have the power. The common sense thought is that if people do not watch a series, it gets pulled off the air. As technology has allowed for fans to watch in other ways, Nielsen’s ability to start tabulating DVR and online streams continues to make the viewers at home feel as if their actions mean something.

This relationship is similar to the political structure in the United States where the rhetoric reinforces the idea that every vote matters because this is democratic society where the views of the individual are heard and taken into account. Of course, in both situations democracy is not as idealistic as it appears to be. In politics, countless reports of voter fraud, tabulation mistakes and the controversies over the discrepancies between the Electoral College vote and the popular vote suggest democracy is a complicated, flawed system. Nielsen using less than one percent of the reported households with a television to determine its ratings proves that every individual’s viewing habits do not matter. Nevertheless, even as Nielsen sticks to its representative sampling methods, the hegemonic thought that every viewer matters has been successful enough that those in the subordinate bloc have not had much desire to push for change beyond complaining online.

The hegemonic values of consumerism and capitalism are also promoted by the relationship between Nielsen, television networks, advertisers and general viewers. Since its inception, television has primarily done two things: Inform the public and serve as a medium for companies to advertise products to that public. At this point these functions of the medium are woven into the fabric of society and as much as viewers try to avoid commercials, they still understand the purpose of them. The idea that the data collection process that helps keep the television industry alive—and thus still providing content to viewers—is powered by its importance to advertisers is telling. The implicit message transmitted to viewers at home is that for television to continue in its current form, people have to watch the advertisements and ultimately, buy some of the products (so the advertisers see a return on investment).

Therefore, the concept articulated is that free market capitalism and the viewers’ work as consumers keeps television in operation. This connection also refers back to democracy in a way because it suggests that, again, the people at home are those with the power. If they do not watch, programs will be canceled. If a program is canceled, advertisers will feel as if they lost money on their investment and perhaps will not work with television again, ultimately harming the medium and its ability to deliver content to the viewer. Consumerism and capitalism are also highlighted by the hegemonic structure through Nielsen’s emphasis on demographics. Along with its total viewer data, Nielsen provides ratings data for specific age demographics, most notably the 18-34 and 18-49 groups.[23] These two demographics are most important to advertisers, who have found that individuals within those age brackets have the most buying power. Accordingly, television networks primarily create content that appeals to people in these demographics and the ratings data dealing with the 18-34 and 18-49 groups are considered to be the most important barometers of success.

The structure of television and its ratings system are in place to put viewers in specific slots so they can be marketed to and eventually convinced to buy, making the ultimate—and obvious—goal of television positioning viewers on the track to make a purchasing decision. Even if viewers have a problem with that situation and try to avoid advertisements through online viewing or DVR-enabled fast-forwarding, most still understand that the situation is in place for a reason, and without it, they might not receive content in the same way. There is little reason for viewers to argue against these powerful industries, particularly when they can subvert their role as consumers through fast-forwarding and similar methods. By not fighting their given roles as vessels for consumerism, viewers implicitly agree to the dominant hegemonic bloc’s values and ideas.

Implications of Nielsen’s hegemonic position

Thus far, I have discussed how the complex relationship between Nielsen, the television and advertising industries and viewers at home creates both a hegemonic framework and emphasizes some of our most dominant cultural values. However, because this relationship affects what types of television programs are produced and seen by the viewing public, the implications extend further than the hegemonic framework itself.

Because the television and advertising industries are so reliant on the Nielsen ratings to measure their respective successes, the content transmitted to viewers is developed to reach the largest audience possible, particularly in the aforementioned demographics. The content is therefore safe and generic in ways that reinforce dominant hegemonic values such as justice, heterosexual romance, traditional gender roles, family, science, consumerism, nostalgia and celebrity. In recent years, as the Nielsen ratings have declined, the major broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC and the CW) have been criticized for playing it safe by airing series that featured formulaic stories and characters, such as police and legal procedurals (reinforcing justice and sometimes science), medical dramas (science, heterosexual romance), sitcoms (gender roles, consumerism, romance, family), remakes or reimagings of older properties (nostalgia, consumerism) and reality series (celebrity, romance).

But while the criticism appears valid, the programs most often derided are also the most watched. Some of the current highest-rated (both in total viewers and demographics) programs on broadcast television are Dancing With The Stars, Grey’s Anatomy, House, Modern Family, NCIS, Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory, The Bachelor and Hawaii Five-0.[24] Each of these popular series furthers dominant hegemonic beliefs, whether it is the emphasis on justice in NCIS, the confirmation of traditional, stereotypical gender roles on Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, the search for heterosexual love on The Bachelor and Grey’s Anatomy, the importance of family on Modern Family, the usefulness of scientific medicine on House, the nostalgia of the remade Hawaii Five-0 or the connection to celebrity viewers get from Dancing With The Stars.

Although there are certainly exceptions to hegemonic values both within these specific series (i.e. homosexual relationships on Grey’s Anatomy) and other popular series not mentioned, generally the most popular programs are those that reinforce many dominant, hegemonic beliefs. By watching these programs, the subordinate bloc not only confirms the business models of Nielsen and the television and advertising industries, but also endorses the dominant hegemonic values. This creates a cycle where more similar content is produced and well-received and the values of the dominant bloc are more entrenched into the fabric of culture.

Will the Nielsen ratings ever go away?

Critics, industry personnel and to some extent viewers have been calling for the removal of the Nielsen ratings system for a long time. But thanks to Nielsen’s ability to address those concerns by improving the model of data collection and the television and advertising industries’ ability to then sell those improvements to viewers in the subordinate bloc, little movement to extinguish Nielsen ratings has been accomplished. Each time a new complaint about Nielsen arises, whether it is from other members within the dominant bloc or the viewers in the subordinate bloc, something—though not always an exact solution—is found to calm those anxieties in a way that defuses the criticisms.

Moreover, the hegemonic values emphasized both by this complex framework and the programming resulting from that framework seems to be well accepted by those in the subordinate bloc. Viewers, despite the occasional complaint about the Nielsen system, feel empowered by the fact that their viewing habits might influence industrial decisions, even if that is not truly the case. Although they generally do not like advertisements and try their best to avoid them when watching television, most viewers comprehend the necessity of advertising and their position as consumers, but also seem to feel that their individual choices are subversive enough to not push the issue any further. Finally, viewers play right into the dominant bloc’s insistence on using the Nielsen system by watching (and thus making popular) the kinds of programming that reinforces dominant hegemonic values. Because of this, there is question as to if the Nielsen ratings and their related effects could ever be abolished.

This is most likely true because for an individual American citizen, fighting against a data collection agency in hopes of keeping a specific television series on the air is surely low on a list of priorities in a time when unemployment levels are high, people are starving and all sorts of awful things are happening. However, Nielsen’s relationship with two important arbiters of taste and discourse in television and advertising suggests that this is a more critical issue that one might think. We in the subordinate bloc interact with television and advertising so often that it is easy to take them and the structures they operate within for granted, but it is also hard to deny these industries hold influence over us as individuals and society as a whole. With that in mind, the dominant values promulgated by this hegemonic relationship become more troubling. What happens if more concerning values are accepted into this hegemonic relationship? Do television and advertising have so much influence over us that it actually takes longer (perhaps too long) for the subordinate bloc to complain about the dominant bloc’s values and ultimately enact some change? Has this framework has become so natural to us—we have allowed television and advertising into our homes and implicitly approved their messages with our viewership— that no sort of revolutionary resistance against it, no matter what, can happen any time soon?

[1] Josef Adalian, “How Networks Are Scrambling to Count Viewers Who Don’t Watch When Everyone Else Does,” New York Magazine, 10 October 2010, Web. 18 October 2010, <http://nymag.com/arts/tv/features/68805/?mid=twitter_vulture&gt;.

[2] Charlie Jean, Anders, “How the Nielsen TV Ratings Work — and What Could Replace Them,” io9,17 September 2010, Web, 18 October 2010, <http://io9.com/5636210/how-the-nielsen-tv-ratings-work–and-what-could-replace-them&gt;.

[3] “Number of U.S. TV Households Climbs by One Million for 2010-11 TV Season,” Nielsen Wire, The Nielsen Company, 27 August 2010, Web, 18 October 2010, <http://blog.nielsen.com/nielsenwire/media_entertainment/number-of-u-s-tv-households-climbs-by-one-million-for-2010-11-tv-season/&gt;.

[4] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “The Ruling Class and the Ruling Ideas,” Media and Cultural Studies, Revised ed., Douglas M. Kellner and Meenakshi Gigi Durham, Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006, 11. Print.

[5] Friedrich Engels, “Letter to Joseph Bloch,” Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, 4th ed., John Storey, England: Pearson, 2009, 61-62, Print.

[6] Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation),” Media and Cultural Studies, Revised ed., Douglas M. Kellner and Meenakshi Gigi Durham, Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006, 79-81. Print.

[7] Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation),” 83.

[8] Dominic Strinati, “Marxism, Political Economy and Ideology,” An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture, 2nd ed., New York: Routledge, 2004, 139, Print.

[9] Antonio Gramsci, “Hegemony, Intellectuals and The State,” Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, 4th ed., John Storey, England: Pearson, 2009, 76, Print.

[10] Antonio Gramsci, “(i) History of the Subaltern Classes; (ii) The Concept of “Ideology”; (iii) Cultural Themes: Ideological Material,” Media and Cultural Studies, Revised ed., Douglas M. Kellner and Meenakshi Gigi Durham, Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006, 15, Print.

[11] Strinati, An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture, 148-49.

[12] Gramsci, “Hegemony, Intellectuals and The State,” 75.

[13] Strinati, An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture, 147.

[14] Gramsci, “Hegemony, Intellectuals and The State,” 76-77.

[15] “Nielsen News FAQs,” Nielsen, Web, 18 October 2010, <http://en-us.nielsen.com/content/nielsen/en_us/news/news_faqs.html&gt;.

[16] Associated Press, “Nielsen to Begin Measuring DVR TV Viewing,” FOXNews.com, 20 December 2005, Web, 18 October 2010, <http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,179125,00.html&gt;.

[17] Cynthia Littleton, “Nielsen to Combine TV, Online Ratings,” Variety, 24 January 2010, Web, 18 October 2010, <http://www.variety.com/article/VR1118014214.html?categoryid=1275&cs=1&gt;.

[18] Bloomberg, “Nielsen to Purchase All NetRatings Shares,” New York Times 5 February 2007, Technology sec, 5 February 2007, Web, 18 October 2010, <http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/05/technology/05iht-techbrief.4479259.html?_r=4&gt;.

[19] Brad Edmondson, “TV execs to Nielsen: Get Smart,” American Demographics, October 1997, Web, 18 October 2010, http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m4021/is_n10_v19/ai_19827502&gt;.

[20] Bill Carter and Stuart Elliott, “Media Companies Seek Rival for Nielsen Ratings,” New York Times 15 August 2010, New York Edition ed., B3 sec, 15 August 2009, Web, 18 October 2010, <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/15/business/media/15ratings.html&gt;.

[21] Strinati, An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture, 148-151.

[22] “Josh Schwartz Twitter Status,” Twitter, 4 October 2010, Web, 18 October 2010, <http://twitter.com/#!/JoshSchwartz76/status/26371675262&gt;.

[23] “TV By The Numbers FAQ,” TVByTheNumbers.com, Web, 19 October 2010, <http://tvbythenumbers.com/numbers-102&gt;.

[24] Robert Seidman, “TV Ratings Broadcast Top 25,” TVByTheNumbers.com, 13 October 2010, Web, 19 October 2010, <http://tvbythenumbers.com/2010/10/13/tv-ratings-broadcast-top-25-snf-glee-greys-anatomy-modern-family-ncis-dancing-with-the-stars-top-week-3-viewing/67788&gt;.



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