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  • Stan Brooks

Television Ratings in a Post-Truth Digital World

In the spring of 1988 I hit a professional crossroads in my career - do I continue to be an

executive in the television movie and series business or do I take that big gamble and bet on myself by going out, hanging up my own shingle and becoming an independent television producer and supplier? That same spring I also got married - and it was on our honeymoon that my wife encouraged me to pursue the latter. (Which, in retrospect, was pretty amazing: “I know we just got married and all - but what do you think about me quitting my job and taking every dime we have and starting my own business? Happy Honeymoon!”)

So, armed with nothing but my love of film, an AFI Degree in Producing, a very supportive,

working wife and a few good ideas - I launched Once Upon A Time Films with the hopes of

producing and owning my own Movies-for-Television. It didn’t take long before a great project came my way - and in the fall of 1989 I went into production on the CBS Movie-for-Television, “PAIR OF ACES” starring Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Rip Torn (may he rest in peace). It was a great and scary experience. I’ll never forget the very first day of production in Austin, Texas - as I walked out, pre-dawn, to a street near the Texas capital, where there was a string of parked trucks and Winnebagos parked for as far as the eye could see. I turned to my Producer, a wise Rabbi-like, veteran named Cyrus, and asked, “Are all of these OURS?” “Yep,” came the matter of fact reply. “You paid for all of ‘em!”

My blood pressure soared and I felt weak in the knees - for there, in cold steel and diesel fuel was my home and every penny I had in the world. Not only was I the Executive Producer, but I was also guaranteeing that the film would be completed - on time and on budget. The risk was palpable and was staring me right in the face, parked along Congress Avenue.

Kris Kristofferson, Stan Brooks & Willie Nelson on the set of PAIR OF ACES in 1989

Cyrus did his job well and taught me the ropes of managing a budget and risk for a two-hour movie-of-the-week. The movie finished and we delivered it to CBS - and we did it on time and under budget. I lived to see another day - and another movie.

And not just ANY other movie - but a sequel to PAIR OF ACES.

My first foray into the independent television was a smashing success. Airing on CBS, on

January 14th 1990, with the NFL’s National Football Conference Championship game as my

“lead-in” our Nelson and Kristofferson buddy film delivered a whopping 17.8 RATING and 28 SHARE.

I suppose this would a good point to explain the difference between a RATING and SHARE.

A TV show's rating refers to the number of households who tuned in to watch the content -- as a percentage of the entire population of TV-equipped homes. If, for example, 20 million TVs dialed in to view Sunday Night Football one weekend, and there are 100 million households overall, then that sports broadcast earned a rating of 20%. In other words, the show reached roughly one-fifth of all U.S. homes.

Here's the calculation expressed as a formula:

Rating = (number of viewers/total universe of potential viewers)

A share is similar to a rating but is limited to households with televisions turned on. For

example, if 1,000 homes have televisions, 500 of those homes have the TVs on and 100

homes are watching Sunday Night Football, then the show's share is 100 divided by 500, or 20 percent. In contrast, the show's rating is 10 percent. The Rating and Share are the numbers the networks use to charge advertising time to their sponsors. The more people watch a program, the more the sponsor has to pay (and vice-versa).

In the simplest of terms, PAIR OF ACES, on that Sunday night in January of 1990, was watched by approximately 18 Million households and nearly one in three TVs that were on from 9pm to 11pm were watching CBS. The LA Times reported that it was the third highest rated movie of the season and helped CBS finish second in the ratings race that week.

It only took a day or two for then CBS Senior VP of Movies & Miniseries, Pat Faulstich, to call us with an offer to do a sequel and reunite Willie, Kris and Rip in Texas. ANOTHER PAIR OF ACES aired on CBS’ Tuesday Night Movie slot on April 9th 1991. Without a football “lead in” and airing on a Tuesday, where viewer numbers are lower across the country (compared to Sunday), we didn’t score another ratings bonanza. A third PAIR OF ACES was not to be.

As a movies-for-television supplier and producer for over two decades, I learned to live and die by the sword swung wide by the families of Nielsen. Back when there were but three (then four) broadcast networks, we’d wait by our phones the next morning for our network executive to call with the “overnights”. Those were called the “Fast Nationals” as they gave you a good snapshot of how well (or not) you did. These were the RATING and SHARE for around fifty of the biggest cities (TV markets) in the country. If you were doing a movie for CBS, they would always tell you that the Nielsen numbers for your project would “come up” the following day, when they got the full picture - all of the data - from all households watching television that night. CBS liked to say that their strengths were in the “C” and “D” counties, the smaller markets, frequently in rural and suburban towns. And, in fact, with both PAIR OF ACES and ANOTHER PAIR OF ACES, our numbers DID go up between the “Fast Nationals” and the final Rating and Share.

Eventually, as the television landscape grew, over the subsequent decade, and America got cabled and dished - there were more networks making television programs and the Nielsen data folks had to evolve with them. I was now making movies for MTV, TNT, Lifetime, ABC Family, The Disney Channel and even ESPN - just to name a few. The ratings system started to change. Cable networks would run my movie, two (sometimes three) times in the first night - and frequently once or twice over the next night or two. Instead of just getting the traditional Rating and Share, as before, we started getting “CUME” ratings, which was an aggregate (or cumulative) rating and share for ALL of the airings those first few days.

In the more recent past, as viewership has changed from watching things during the timeslot when they air for the first time - to using a DVR to watch things any time you want-again Nielsen had to adapt. Now networks and studios not only get Overnights and complete National Ratings and Shares within a day - they also (a week later) get the Ratings and Shares for the first three days (known as the LIVE-PLUS-3 rating) and for the first seven days (known as the LIVE-PLUS-7 rating). These numbers now include all of the DVR viewers.

The amazing thing about the Nielsen ratings system has always been how transparent it is. When one of my movies aired, I would hear from my network executive the next morning, sometimes before the sun was up. They would be able to tell you your Rating and Share, but also, did you hold the rating handed to you by your ‘lead-in’ and did your audience that joined you at 9pm stay with your show until 11pm or did some of them leave at one point? We could see the Rating and Share for every fifteen minutes, before and after every commercial. You could know how well your show did with WOMEN or with audiences aged 18-49 or other key demographics. There was so much available data. AND - if you wanted to know how well your competitors were doing - the Ratings and Shares for ALL television programs were printed EVERY WEEK in a grid and published in the L.A. Times and the industry trade papers (The Hollywood Reporter and Variety).

Before there was the internet to research the success of movies-of-the-week gone by - or to see how a certain actor had done in the ratings in previous movies, there was the BIBLE - “The Complete Reference Guide to Movies and Miniseries Made for TV and Cable 1984 and 1994” by Maj Canton. That book lived on my desk - and I even became phone pals with Maj, so I could ask her deep dive ratings questions on older films. She was a walking encyclopedia on Moviesfor-Television plots and ratings.

Maj was able to publish that book because all of the information she needed to compile that

book and cross reference them by genre - was readily available and accessible in print.

As much as I loved thumbing through Maj’s book and availing myself of her Holmes-ian

knowledge of television movie ratings - all of the information she once aggregated exclusively, is now readily available on the internet. Networks still live and die by their ratings (although nobody gets even close to the near 18 Rating and 30 Share of PAIR ACES). By comparison, the #1 show on television this past season was SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL on NBC which averaged a 5.79 rating. The highest rated scripted program was THE BIG BANG THEORY which averaged a 2.24 rating! Even more amazing, the highest rated Movie-for-Television last season was a 1.7 rating for the second night of THE BOBBY BROWN STORY on BET (extremely well produced by my friend Jesse Collins).

If you’re sitting at home wondering what the Ratings are for shows you watch, a couple clicks on the Google Machine and BOOM! the information is at your fingertips. Even networks that don’t need to subscribe to the Nielsen folks’ business, since they don’t show advertising (like HBO, Showtime and Starz) are still very open about their viewership. You need only open any paper the week that the GAME OF THRONES Series Finale aired on HBO to read quotes (like this one from Deadline Hollywood):

In just linear viewing, the 9 PM ET-starting “The Iron Throne” snagged 13.6 million sets of

eyeballs. Put in perspective, that’s 9% better than the death-from-above-fueled

penultimate episode of May 12. It also tops the HBO single-episode record of 13.4 million

that the Season 4 opener of The Sopranos pulled off 17 years ago.

With every broadcast and cable network so forthcoming about their numbers, it’s curious to me that the “streaming” networks (like Netflix and Hulu) are not transparent about their ratings. What’s the advantage of not telling their studio and producer partners how well (or not) their shows are doing? Wouldn’t it be illustrative of their audience’s viewing habits?

Two of my favorite shows on Netflix were the amazing Marvel series, DAREDEVIL and JESSICA JONES. If you missed seeing the always riveting Vincent D’Onofrio as the villain “Wilson Fisk” (aka KINGPIN) in the first season of DAREDEVIL - you missed one of the truly best TV antagonists in a very long time. Although David Tennant’s performance as the villain in season one of JESSICA JONES (as “Kilgrave”) was equally spellbinding and diabolical. Just great television. I was a rabid fan and would binge every new season as soon as it dropped.

Krysten Ritter as “Jessica Jones” & David Tennant as “Kilgrave” in the Marvel series, “Jessica Jones”

To my utter disappointment, I learned this past February that both JESSICA JONES and

DAREDEVIL (and my other super-fave superhero, THE PUNISHER) were all being canceled. Now, in the world I come from, in network television, when a show gets axed in one of its first three seasons (none of the aforementioned Marvel shows made it past Season Three), it was because the ratings had dropped and folks stopped watching it. But, apparently, despite Netflix’ comments to the contrary, DAREDEVIL was as popular as ever. Deadline Hollywood wrote, upon learning of the show’s cancellation:

That’s evident in the latest numbers from Parrot Analytics which reveal that Daredevil ranked fourth last week in viewer demand among all digital originals in the U.S. across all streaming platforms.

Demand for the sightless superhero series was surpassed only by three shows (Narcos, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and Stranger Things, all from Netflix) during the week

ending December 1, the chart shows. The chart measures “desire, engagement and

viewership” with weighted values that, for example, give heft to the total “likes” a show

accumulates but give greater heft to the total number of actual streaming viewings.

And if you’re wondering if there are other outside sources trying to do analytics on Netflix

shows, to come up with a comparable Nielsen type understanding of their viewership, you need look no further than this AMAZING map that was displayed in a Washington Post story by business journalist, Steven Zeitchik. (

Here are all fifty states and their MOST WATCHED show on Netflix.

From the Steven Zeitchik, Washington Post, article “The most sought Netflix show in every state — and how a researcher found them”

Here are the TOP FIVE shows on Netflix from last year, from the same source:

Of the thousands of programming choices available on Netflix (which, full confession, I have and love) it turns out that DAREDEVIL is the most popular program in New York, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee and South Dakota - and it’s one of Netflix’ TOP FIVE shows. In addition, two other Marvel series that were cancelled too soon (IRON FIST and LUKE CAGE) are the top choice in five other states. That’s TEN states picking one of the quartet of Marvel superheroes shows on Netflix, as their favorite series. Wow.

Since, Netflix doesn’t reveal its ratings, it’s hard to know, for certain, that these outside sources, doing observational analytics, are as trustworthy as Nielsen, but at least we are beginning to see that perhaps the streaming networks aren’t telling us the whole truth - and other factors are coming into play when they cancel a popular show.

This is not to say that broadcast networks never cancel popular shows (ABC’s decision to cancel ROSEANNE last year is the most obvious example). But in every one of those cases we know exactly why. There is no lack of information on the WHY of every cancellation.

Which led to me wonder if this is a product of a new technology wanting to set its own rules.

Perhaps the streaming services, requiring no advertising revenue, in the brave new world of

digital programming, want to play by different audience transparency guidelines than the

broadcast, cable and pay networks did, with which I grew up. So, I started to look at my other digital viewing habits.

My current GO TO daily smile on Instagram and Facebook is PHONY TEXTS (@phonytexts) which creates an original three to five-minute movie - all told in TEXT form - every day. It reminds me of when Charlie Brown and Lucy were daily required reading in the newspaper. PHONY TEXTS is consistently clever and funny. And I’m not alone in loving them. In their short existence they’ve garnered almost 700,000 Followers on Instagram and their YouTube channel has over 150 Million views. How do I know this? Because that data is all RIGHT THERE on their site.

With a little more digging I was able to learn how many viewers they have at PHONY TEXTS on all their platforms (they’re on Snapchat too), how many times their little movies have been viewed - and if I was the producer or studio, I could have also learned the “retention” rate (how long did the viewer stay - did they watch the whole thing?) and other key analytics of the audience. If that sounds familiar - well it should. That’s exactly the kind of information I would get from my CBS executive after PAIR OF ACES (and others) aired on their network - the information Nielsen provided, minute by minute, audience member by audience member.

I suppose as a child of the birth of color television, having watched the arrival of cable and a five hundred channel universe, I’m a bit of the “get off my lawn” guy when it comes to the new world of ratings and transparency. But if Instagram, Facebook and YouTube can tell their digital content suppliers the same data I got as a TV movie supplier - why can’t we get that from the streaming networks? Why do third party analytic companies have to try and guess?

Alas, I guess I’m going to have to put my treasure trove of Nielsen Overnights and Fast

Nationals in the same drawer with my VHS tapes and TV Guide issues.

Say good night, Gracie.

Good night Gracie.

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