Should We Be Surprised That 60% of TV Programmes Get Zero Ratings?

On Twitter James Cridland highlighted a stat reported within a Media Guardian story on Local TV:

Is this a shocking number? Are vast swathes of television going unwatched by anybody at all?

Let’s have a closer look.

If we compare to radio stations (with which, like James, readers of this blog may be more familiar), then zero rated slots are relatively few. Smaller stations might do poorly in some overnights. But without getting into sub-demos, there’s usually an audience for major dayparts.

But RAJAR and BARB work very differently. RAJAR in particular is actually set up to measure sometimes very small stations within their local area. It has to because many stations sell advertising by daypart. To do this it must get upwards of 110,000 respondents per year to complete a diary nationally. The smallest of stations will use a full year’s worth of data to deliver a quarter’s audience, while the biggest local and national stations use completely fresh samples each quarter.

Within any given area, there are usually a limited number of local services, all of whom will get some kind of audience, and a wider selection of national services, some of which may actually be zero rated in your area, but who do have listeners nationally.

So small stations usually get respectable audiences locally, and national stations – even small ones – end up with respectable audiences on a national scale.

On the other hand, BARB has a panel of 5,100 homes (representing 11,500 people) measuring around 300 services, nearly all of whom are measured nationally – no matter how small.

In the most recent data on the BARB website (w/c 6 April at time of writing) 33 of those 300 or so channels accounted for a 75% share of viewing. Indeed BBC1, BBC2, ITV, C4 and C5 alone accounted for a 48% share of all viewing alone.

What this means is that viewing is seriously skewed towards bigger channels.

At the other extreme, 267 channels have less than a 0.5% share each across the week, with 192 gaining a 0.1% share or less.*

If your channel is achieving less than a 0.1% share, then that means even when you have a panel of 5,100 homes, there’s a high probability that the panel won’t pick up big chunks of that small amount of viewing. The panel size just isn’t big enough. So if you start looking at individual programme data from these channels, you’re going to find a sea of zeroes (or more often, stars).

Importantly, that doesn’t mean nobody is watching at all at those times. It just means the number is small enough that a panel of 5,100 homes isn’t able to pick up that viewing. There are about 26.5m homes in the UK after all.

So how do these channels exist commercially with all these zero ratings?

Well they don’t sell advertising on the basis of individual programmes, but overall share. And that share is measured across a week or maybe a month. And they don’t sell by channel, but groups of channels. The more you aggregate upwards, the more robust the data becomes.

So while MTV Dance might only have a 0.02% share, you have to add in the 0.02% share that MTV Base gets, and the 0.02% share that VH1 gets, and so on. You end up with something that an advertiser might be interested in. As long as the costs aren’t too high for creating additional channels (and you factor in any revenues that Sky/Virgin might give you from their subscriber fees), then your network remains profitable.

And nobody cares that BARB failed to record any viewing for your channel between 0600 and 0630 on Tuesday morning.**

So that 60% stat?

In some ways, I’m surprised that it’s as low as 60% when the vast majority of channels actually have relatively minuscule shares. But aggregate those tiny shares up, and you end up with profitable businesses.

This also explains why service providers bundle channels and don’t let you pick and choose them individually. The model falls over if we all get to choose precisely which channels we want to watch. That’s called “A La Carte” and it’s a big issue at the moment in US TV particularly where a new generation of viewers might choose just to buy Netflix and HBO Now instead of a full cable package. But that’s a blog for another day.

* It looks like a handful of temporary channels are included in this list, so they may not have been broadcasting during the week I highlighted including some temporary BBC and Sky red button services.

** For all I know, music channels do well at this time. I don’t have the data. But you get the point.