Many TV sites give the viewing figures for a particular episode or series.

With more modern digital TVs I can accept that these values could be gathered from the television itself but I find this extremely unlikely when you consider historical figures (not to mention the privacy issues).

Are surveys carried out and I've simply never heard of one?

It's obviously very important information because advert sales depend on accurate information. So how do television companies judge how many people have viewed their shows?

  • 2
    I should add that I'm based in the UK - this may explain why I've not seen surveys
    – Liath
    Jun 3, 2014 at 13:08
  • I've always heard (or just thought?) there was indeed some kind of feedback information about which frequency (i.e. channel) is viewed by a TV device/connection at any given time. You can't just assess all this based merely on manual surveys.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Jun 3, 2014 at 13:10
  • Not to mention in this day and age digital viewing is considered as well. Jun 3, 2014 at 13:19
  • I think they used to be phone screens ..... in the UK too.
    – iandotkelly
    Jun 3, 2014 at 13:44
  • @NapoleonWilson: That sounds like a severe violation of privacy laws (depending on where you live) to me. The overall notion of tv sets transmitting any information is more of a (barely known) new development of internet-capable tv sets. Jun 3, 2014 at 19:47

3 Answers 3


What you are referring to is commonly known as TV ratings.

So how do television companies judge how many people have viewed their shows?

They usually rely on two main techniques, applied to a representative minority of viewers who get payed in helping collect the TV ratings:

  1. Viewer diaries - The viewer writes down what he watches when. This information is then collected and analyzed regularly. This method is cheap and easy, but of course not very accurate.
  2. Set meters and people meters - These are set top boxes connected to the TV that gather viewing habits on a very detailed level (per-minute basis). Those boxes are activated by the viewer when he starts to watch a TV show, people meters even track who exactly in a household is currently watching. The results then get transmitted to the ratings authority.

In the US this is called Nielsen ratings by the Nielsen Company, the UK has the Broadcasters' Audience Research Board and in Germany the ratings are currently surveyed by the "Arbeitsgemeinschaft Fernsehforschung".

The overall ratings are then extrapolated from the representative small data set.

Other techniques that also get applied include

  • Surveys - People are asked what they watched.
  • Internet viewership - The click numbers of online services are getting more and more important nowadays and are getting more attention lately.

I have personally received Nielsen Ratings, even as late as a few years ago. Their web site says:

Electronic and proprietary metering technology is at the heart of Nielsen audience measurement. In addition to capturing what channels viewers are watching on each television set in the home, our meters can identify who is watching and when, including “time-shifted” viewing—the watching of recorded programming up to seven days after an original broadcast.

Chosen at random through proven methodology, Nielsen’s U.S. TV families represent a cross-section of representative homes throughout the country. We measure viewing using our national and local people meters, which capture information about what’s being viewed and when, and in the major U.S. markets, specifically who and how many people are watching. We also have TV set meters in many local markets, and we collect more than two million paper diaries from audiences across the country each year during “sweeps”—specific periods during the months of February, May, July and November. To measure video content viewed on mobile devices, we have expanded our panels to incorporate census-style data from third parties in order to capture the breadth and depth of consumer usage.

Nielsen delivers a constant, real-time stream of information, revealing tuning behavior during programs and commercials. We can tell clients which commercials are being watched, as well as which ones have the strongest engagement and impact. We analyze which position in the program or commercial block is most effective for a specific brand and which markets will create the best return on investment for brands.

I know Nielsen is just one ratings company, but would bet the other ones are pretty much the same.

  • 3
    Nielsen is THE company for these things though, isn't it. I think you've pretty much nailed it with this answer. Jun 3, 2014 at 13:10
  • 1
    I really don't know if it is "THE" company (well, maybe I do), but assumed there may be others. It is the company I am aware of, though. Jun 3, 2014 at 13:17
  • 3
    To be fair, it's only THE company within the US. Other countries have similar but different systems in place.
    – magnattic
    Jun 3, 2014 at 13:29
  • 1
    Though, this large block of advertisement text hides some of the more important parts of the answer behind rather fuzzy wording, I think. Maybe at least some manual emphasis in the quote (if not a summary) might improve on the signal to noise ratio of the answer.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Jun 3, 2014 at 13:46
  • I think your signal-to-noise ratio is squelching what you are trying to say there, @NapoleonWilson ... ;-) Edited to bring home some areas of interest. Jun 3, 2014 at 13:49

In the U.S., Nielsen would send out set-top boxes that would physically attach to your cable box. Those boxes would sending viewing information back to Nielsen, who would compile it and sell the data to TV stations so they could use it to charge higher advertising rates during programs with higher viewing rates.

  • 4
    Why has this answer been downvoted? Jun 3, 2014 at 19:49

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