The world is a confusing place, so let Professor GIF explain the most befuddling topics through the magic of animated GIFs.

IN THIS ISSUE: 3 easy facts and 15 hilarious GIFs explaining how TV ratings "work".




Fact #1: The TV ratings system "works" because everyone in a position of power has agreed to pretend that it works.


Super Bowl Sunday was a huge hit. Two semi-popular teams playing football, with a bizarre 34-minute blackout in the middle, still racked up the third-largest TV audience in American history (108.4 million people) and the largest television audience ever recorded if you count people who watched all or part of the game (164.1 million people). Those are ridiculous numbers, but remember, the Super Bowl is more than just a TV broadcast.

(GIF via)

Since the Super Bowl has the highest TV rating, it can charge the highest prices for commercial airtime. This year the price tag was up to $4 million per 30 seconds. Potential problem? Those TV ratings that make the Super Bowl #1, and determine whether other shows are succeeding or failing, operate on an outmoded dinosaur of a system.


Nielsen ratings are based on the viewing habits of a sample of around 20,000 homes. They measure this with "People Meter" technology in each house. They've depended on this measurement system for 25 years now, and it's just an update of the longtime previous system of "keep a diary and be unashamedly honest with us."


Nielsen ratings don't measure every TV, because the costs would be prohibitive. Their goal is to measure viewership well enough to determine what ads should cost for different programs, and nothing more. They're also doing this even though DVRs let you skip ads, and then measuring that DVR viewership even though, again, DVRs let you skip ads. And don't forget the countable but less-profitable audience that's watching shows on computers and phones, and then the zero-profit people who are using tech to steal shows and pay no one.


Ratings numbers are only becoming less relevant, but they're also the only way networks know how to measure things. In the words of a top NBC executive:


Ratings determine ad dollars, and ad dollars determine which shows are profitable, so the force of everyone agreeing ratings are still the system of TV measurement is all that's backing how television's business model works. It's now based on a sort of gentlemen's agreement between old people to pretend we all still live in the old days, and they do NOT want to be told that's absurd.

(GIF via)

A TV business model based on Nielsen ratings should totally collapse, right? Well let's try a thought experiment:

Imagine a country that considers itself a democracy, and lets every citizen vote. But instead of making the race for its most important office a winner-takes-all contest, they use an antique system passed down from olden times where a shadowy, proportionally tiny group of people has all the actual power to determine who leads the country.

We can't possibly run a real-life democracy like that, right?


Nielsen ratings are the ridiculous antique system that runs TV, just like the Electoral College is the ridiculous antique system that runs America, because people would rather limp along with what we've got than change everything. And if ratings are the only game in town, they must be the reason [your favorite show] got cancelled, right?