It has been said that a TV program lives and dies by its ratings. So, how do the rating services know which program you and your family are watching?
One of the first ways of determining the number of viewers watching a particular program was the "diary method." It was very popular in smaller TV markets. Your family may have received a ratings diary. The package contained a form to be filled out giving personal information such as the size of your family, the age of each family member, the number and location of each TV in the household and other demographic information.
The package from the rating service usually contained a dollar bill and a pencil. The dollar was a token of the company's thanks for filling out the diary for a week and a pencil to facilitate the process. The diary method had several shortcomings that led to questionable information. I always thought that the diary method favored the long-standing market leader.
Here's why. Diary families were supposed to fill out their diaries honestly and thoroughly, but there were always days or parts of a day that you watched TV and forgot to write down which station you were watching. Take for instance the news leader in the TV market. If you had been tardy in filling out your diary and were catching up, you might say to yourself, "we always watch Ch X's newscast at 6 p.m."... when in reality you watched Ch. Z's news. Because of Ch. X's reputation for being the market leader in news, you had written down their channel as the program you watched.
By the early '70s, the ratings companies were using computers connected to TVs in selected homes to acquire viewing data overnight. The data were sent from the viewer's home directly to the ratings measurement company over telephone lines. This did a better job of eliminating the human error factor associated with the older, less reliable method.
If you want to know the highest rated TV broadcast in the U.S., just think football...the Super Bowl to be specific. According to Nielsen the most watched program ever was Super Bowl XLIX which aired on Feb. 1, 2015. Nielsen estimated 114,442,000 people were watching.
The highest rated, non-Super Bowl program was the final episode of "M*A*S*H" which aired on Feb. 28, 1983 and garnered an amazing 105,970,000 total viewers.
When it comes to the highest rated TV series ("M*A*S*H" was No. 1) here are the remaining top 10:
(No. 2) "Cheers," (No.3) "The Fugitive," (No. 4) "Seinfeld," (No. 5) "Friends," (No. 6) "Magnum P.I.," (No. 7) "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," (No. 8) "The Cosby Show," (No. 9) "All in the Family," and (No. 10) "Family Ties."
(If you include a mini-series "Roots" would be No. 2) And, if you look at the networks that originated the top ten series, NBC had six, CBS had three, and ABC had one.
Looking back at the top series by the decade, "The Ed Sullivan Show" was the leader in the 1950s with the episode that featured special guest star Elvis Presley. (Where were the Beatles?) The rest of the list includes: 1960s - "The Fugitive" (ABC), 1970s - "Roots," 1980s - "M*A*S*H," 1990s - "Cheers," 2000s - "Friends," and 2010s - "Undercover Boss."
Fast forward, if you will. Let's take a look at the top TV shows in the 2018-19 season by the key demographic, Adults 18-49. "Game of Thrones" on HBO was the number one ranked show with adults 18 to 49.
And yes, you guessed it, football took the No. 2, 3, and 4 spots. NBC's Sunday Night Football was No. 2, the NFL's Thursday Night Football on Fox and the NFL Network was No. 3, and ESPN's Monday Night Football was No. 4. This Is Us on NBC was tied with "The Masked Singer" (Fox) for fifth place.
Not all sports broadcasts are golden, however. The NBA Saturday Primetime finished tied with 10 other shows at No. 92. Included in that bunch that finished last was one of my favorites, "Shark Tank."
When it came to total viewers, all demographics, NFL Sunday Nigh Football was No. 1 at 19,276,000 viewers followed by the last season of "The Big Bang Theory," "NCIS," "Game of Thrones," and "Young Sheldon."
That's enough numbers for one conversation! Stay tuned same time next year when we look back at the 2019-20 ratings, or maybe not.