The Ratings Game

TV Ratings have always been a bit of a touchy subject. It will continue to be highly discussed as the digital space grows and provides more ways to target and report on ad performance.

TV is not able to offer the level of reporting digital can provide … at least for now. That doesn’t mean that it is less effective. It just needs to be used and measured differently as we adjust to new offerings and ways of advertising.

Luckily, we are seeing some changes as TV tries to keep up with the growing needs of advertisers and agencies.


For more than 60 years, Nielsen has been the only one in the game as it relates to providing TV ratings data. They have been the constant in the TV ratings world, telling you how many people watched and what kind of demographic profile they represented. Historically, Nielsen was your only option. That is no longer the case.

comScore, previously Rentrak, has joined the TV ratings game. This is not new information. But as more stations and networks begin to adopt comScore, we are coming face to face with new/different ratings data.


ComScore and Nielsen provide slightly different offerings for their clients.


  • This provider tracks viewing behavior from more than 35 million TVs in all 210 TV markets. They have a goal of 38 million TVs by the end of Q1 2018.
  • Its ratings are based on households. This means that if you are buying media targeting men 25-54, a household with a male living in it who is 35-54 will be counted.
  • Data is collected using satellite and cable set top boxes.


  • In 2018, Nielsen is doing away with their standard “diary” format for collecting data. They will be using return path data collected from satellite and cable set top boxes. They will also provide the already established meters and people meters.
  • At the end of 2017, Nielsen had 140 markets that were “diary only” markets. These will all move to 100% set top box collection this year.
  • In addition to diary markets, Nielsen has
    • 25 Local People Meter (LPM) markets
    • 19 metered markets with Portable People Meters (PPM)
    • 26 metered markets without PPM.
  • Meters are electronic boxes installed in Nielsen family homes to record what is being watched and by whom.
  • With LPMs and PPMs, each family member in a sample household is assigned a personal viewing button that identifies them as the viewer and records their age and sex, along with other relevant demographic information.

TV Ratings

How Are They Different?

The main differences between these two providers are the methodology used and how they handle their data.

  • comScore does not have demographic ratings. They use Experian data to indicate household composition.
    • They use program rating indices compared to the total U.S. households that have people within that age range residing in them. For example, if a household consists of one male age 45, one female age 40, one female age 13 and one male age 18, each of those age groups receives credit for viewership of each program viewed within that household.
  • Nielsen does have specific demographic data gathered from the people meter panels and viewer assignment that is predicted by matching viewing probabilities of LPM/PPM homes to non-LPM homes to assign their viewing.

The Unfortunate Reality of TV Ratings

With both Nielsen and comScore moving to all set top box data collection to gain more accuracy, there is a big elephant in the room – some cable companies won’t share their data. Currently, only the following companies share their data:

  • AT&T/DirecTV
  • Dish
  • Charter (Legacy)
  • Cox (for comScore only) .

Both comScore and Nielsen are missing data from the main cable households:

  • Comcast
  • Spectrum (Charter, Time Warner & Bright House)
  • Altice (Cablevision)

Spectrum is set to begin sharing its data with both companies this year.

Nielsen is still the ratings currency of the majority of the stations that I work with. Their ability to give statistically sound demographic ratings and their evolution to 100% return path data this year will mean larger sample sizes, making ratings and viewership data more reliable and estimating program audiences more precise.

As comScore gains more of a foothold, it will be interesting to see what happens. I’m not here to say which one is better or which one everyone should be leaning on – it needs to be addressed on a case-by-case basis dependent on the stations being used and the client’s needs. What I will say is that I 100% support comScore entering the ratings game. The Nielsen/comScore competition will push them to evolve and enhance their products and create better products for more accurate data and reporting for clients.