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Commentary: TV ratings fail to account for college students

By Josh Rutenberg     3/14/12 7:00pm

When NBC announced it would be pulling the comedy Community mid-season last fall, I felt a pit in my stomach. Easily one of the most creative and funny shows on television, Community had been edging dangerously close to cancellation due to its relatively low ratings on the already under-performing network.

Community returned yesterday at 8 p.m., but if the show fails to see improvements in its ratings this spring, it will likely be canceled for good.

Networks typically rely on TV ratings, particularly the Nielsen ratings, to determine how successfully their shows are performing. Once a network knows how popular its shows are among certain demographics, it can sell advertising time accordingly.

Ratings are why Super Bowl ads cost millions of dollars and why prime time is such a sacred time slot. At the end of the day, it is all about the viewers, and that is a big problem for college students.

Why is such a witty and unprecedented show not garnering more viewers? Community has a brilliant cast and writing team, filled with up-and-coming comedians like Joel McHale (The Soup), Donald Glover (Mystery Team) and Alison Brie (Mad Men). The TV series has explored romance, action, spaghetti westerns, science fiction and even stop-motion animation in its two-and-a-half season existence. It even relates to the college experience!

Ultimately, the show's predicament reminds me of the one faced by Chuck, a spy comedy widely regarded as a cult classic that faced the chopping block on several occasions only to be saved at the last minute by viewer-led campaigns.

In both cases, the issue rests more with how TV ratings are measured than with the shows themselves. While no system is perfect, Nielsen is still living far in the past. Until 1987, Nielsen required participants to keep track of their records in a diary, but now keeps track of homes through digital monitoring devices.

Internet and social media were not accounted for until 2007. As college students, many of us have classes, review sessions or other commitments that prevent us from watching shows scheduled in the evening. Imagine all the college students and others unaccounted for because they watch their shows the next day on websites like Hulu.com or NBC.com.

That is just the surface of the real problem, though. The primary flaw in the Nielsen ratings revolves around the idea of the home as a unit of analysis. Currently, Nielsen tracks families that agree to have their preferences monitored throughout the year, which leaves college dormitories completely out of the picture.

Nielsen is actually aware of this flaw, and accounts for it by monitoring roughly 130 students across America each year. My knowledge of statistics may be a bit rusty, but that hardly seems like an appropriate sample size, especially when some TV providers offer thousands of channels.

TV ratings are undermining the voice of college students, and with the rise of the Internet and social media, it is becoming more of a problem than ever before.

Last year, when NBC hinted at the cancellation of Chuck, a group called "Not a Nielsen Family" began a twitter campaign to thank sponsors during commercials in real time as a way of combating the ratings system. The group ended up triumphant when sponsors responded and, in some cases, ramped up support for the program. The TV series, which had been threatened with cancellation twice before, was able to end on its own terms.

Of course, such campaigns take a Herculean effort, and whether the campaign could have been kept up for another season or for that matter a different TV show is doubtful.

Although NBC must be preoccupied with the bottom line, it may be sacrificing one of its most cutting-edge shows on TV for all the wrong reasons. Maybe Community will be saved if NBC can find a way to monitor demographics for online viewers, or maybe Community will rely on one last-ditch campaign after another until the show ends.

Either way, this is one entertaining show that should remain a part of our own community for as long as possible.

Josh Rutenberg is a Lovett College senior and Thresher News Editor.


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