Devices are to blame for TV ratings tumble, Nielsen says

Are you watching prime-time broadcast TV on your phone? You're behind a drop in ratings for splashy fall premieres, Nielsen says.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
Expertise Streaming video, film, television and music; virtual, augmented and mixed reality; deep fakes and synthetic media; content moderation and misinformation online Credentials
  • Three Folio Eddie award wins: 2018 science & technology writing (Cartoon bunnies are hacking your brain), 2021 analysis (Deepfakes' election threat isn't what you'd think) and 2022 culture article (Apple's CODA Takes You Into an Inner World of Sign)
Joan E. Solsman
2 min read

The proliferation of different devices on which people can watch TV is hurting traditional television ratings. Getty Images

TV ratings at the biggest networks have been weak this fall, but Nielsen says the problem isn't how much people are watching -- it's where they're tuning in to TV.

Friday, Nielsen Global President Steve Hasker said he believed a drop in prime-time broadcast television ratings this fall is the result of people watching content on devices other than televisions.

Nielsen -- the company whose ratings are the standard for gauging the size of TV audiences and thus the advertising revenue a show can command -- has long struggled with how to count viewing that takes place off the television, even as video on mobile devices has proliferated. These difficulties have clogged how much content is available on devices, since networks are reluctant to make their content available live on Internet-connected devices without any promise that viewing on iPads or iPhones will count toward the all-important rankings that set advertising rates.

This year, Nielsen began measuring and collecting data about viewing on other devices.

At the same time, the ratings during the prime-time evening viewing hours have dropped at the big broadcast networks this fall, when the channels tend to cluster their splashiest show premieres of the year.

Hasker said that though Nielsen now measures viewing on many devices, and will measure viewing on new devices as they emerge, what Nielsen measures and what it includes in ratings are different. He added that the company plans to work with the industry to figure out what among its measurements should be counted in the traditional ratings.

Overall, Nielsen said it's observing increased total viewing of video, with the vast majority of that video being professionally produced content, like the kind you'd see on a traditional television network.