On Twitter last night, The Bachelor host Chris Harrison responded to a fan’s question about TV ratings with an incorrect answer. The fan asked if DVRed shows count in the ratings, and Chris replied that they do not, and joked that he’d “let it slide this once.” Several people replied to Chris and apologized for DVRing the show, even though Chris is absolutely wrong. Although ratings can be confusing and are far from perfect, they include DVRed shows.
First, the only people included in the ratings are Nielsen families (or “panel,” as Nielsen calls them): people who record their viewing habits in diaries or have boxes attached to their TVs and DVRs that record that information automatically. So, if you aren’t a Nielsen family, it doesn’t really matter what you watch, at least as far as ratings are concerned.
Four years ago, Nielsen said it wanted 37,000 homes and 100,000 people to be the sample group by 2011, so there are a small number of people and homes who are used to extrapolate what everyone watches. (Because I am not a math person, this is a difficult concept for me; after being randomly selected to record radio ratings by Arbitron about 10 years ago, I even wrote a story about radio ratings to try to understand how a few randomly selected people could really represent everyone. Nielsen has been criticized over the randomness and representation of its panel.)
When you see TV ratings reported in the media, those are typically overnight ratings are referred to as “live + same day,” and that means they include those panelists who watched the show live or watched it on their DVR until 3 a.m. the next day. So, yes, playback on a DVR counts in the ratings for those who are counted.
On a weekly basis, we learn about “live + 7 day” ratings: those that include people who watched on their DVR within a week. Since that adds more people, network publicists like to use that number to illustrate a show’s popularity. Publicists, marketers, and journalists also break down a show by demographics and report different types of numbers, often depending upon which is higher or which speaks more to a network’s target audience; here’s a good primer on what those numbers mean.
However, TV By the Numbers explains that another, more obscure, rarely public number, C3 or “C + 3 day,” is what “determine[s] how much the networks get paid for their advertising” because it “measure[s] Live and DVR viewing of the average commercial minute during a show within 3 days of airdate.” Because that number is typically very similar to live + same day, Bill Gorman argues that “additional DVR viewing after the ‘Same Day’ period doesn’t make the network any more money or ‘help’ any shows.”
So, while Chris Harrison is wrong when he insisted that DVRed shows don’t count, if you’re a Nielsen family and you wait five days to watch The Bachelorette because Ashley is so boring, you aren’t helping to inflate Chris’ paycheck, but your viewership will be noted and potentially included in a press release.