The broadcast networks don’t reach as many people as you might think


TL;DR: each of the big broadcast networks is currently available in fewer than 100 million homes in the United States.

Though this post will feed through to Twitter automatically, I am extending my Twitter sabbatical indefinitely and will not be signing in to check mentions or direct messages anytime soon*. 

I’m not picking on Andrew Bucholtz. I like Andrew and, as it goes, he goes out of his way to try harder than many to get things right with the Nielsen stuff. But a recent piece from him caught my extra-special-pedantic**-when-it-comes-to-Nielsen-eye, and I could not look away! From Andrew’s piece:

Yes, those bring in a larger potential audience (as discussed here recently, the main ESPN network was estimated to reach around 80 million TV homes earlier this year, while 116.4 million people are estimated to be able to watch games on broadcast TV), and that’s something the NFL very much wants (which is why we’ve often seen MNF and playoff games simulcast on ABC recently).

The emphasis above is mine and was linked (by Andrew and, also me above) to a Nielsen post that notes that Nielsen currently estimates there are 121 million TV homes and that 96.2 percent of them, one way or the other, have access to “traditional TV signals” (i.e. broadcast networks). Indeed that does work out to 116.4 million.

But, to quote Pablo Torre, “here’s the thing,” 96.2 percent do NOT have access to ALL OF THE BROADCAST networks. It works out, per Nielsen’s daily reporting, that station coverage for CBS nationally is 82 percent in primetime and ABC, FOX and NBC are at 81% coverage nationally.

Nielsen traditionally operates under a veil of secrecy about these numbers and while that’s not a surprising way for a de facto monopoly to operate, in this case it also probably makes Disney, Viacom/CBS, Comcast and Fox, pretty much Nielsen’s biggest customers, very happy. It’s in none of those companies interest for that 81-82 percent thing to be pointed out. They’re fine with you thinking 96.2 percent and finer still with you just going ahead and (if it were actually the case, reasonably) rounding that up to 100 percent.

Why does Nielsen say 96.2 percent of homes have access to “traditional TV signals” when it typically these days reports nightly primetime station coverage of only 81-82 percent for ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC? What accounts for that 15 percent difference?

It’s impossible (for me) to get a precise answer from Nielsen about practically anything, and I get the sense when it comes to their black box even their multi-million dollar a year customers struggle to get precision.

But I’m comfortable chalking it up to that, for whatever reasons, there’s a measurable portion of the country that regularly doesn’t have access to ALL FOUR big broadcast networks and only has access to one, two or three of them. That’s regularly. On top of that there are other factors which can be short-term to longer term. Markets temporarily not airing national programming due to big local news/weather stories, preemptions of national programming for local sporting events, and of course the dreaded dispute with cable, satellite, telco and streaming companies where one (or more) local affiliate is pulled. All of that factors into the coverage percentages.

When I first started looking at Nielsen data in 2007, the station coverage was typically 98-99 percent. It was close enough to 100 percent that even my extra-special-pedantic**-eye wasn’t triggered by people saying the broadcast networks were available to 100% of the homes with TVs in the United States.

But due to the changing nature of how people consume content and how the business now operates (e.g. streaming services that might have some, but not all of your local broadcast affiliates) you should no longer assume that each of the broadcast networks is currently available to around 116 million homes. Even if Nielsen and, especially, the broadcast networks are absolutely fine with you doing so!

They’re available in fewer than 100 million homes. In the case of ABC it works out to around 98 million per recent Nielsen station coverage reporting.

The moral of this story? 98 million homes is around 18 million more homes than the ~80 million homes ESPN is in, but it’s also ~18 million fewer homes than 116 million. Either way, 18 million is kind of a lot of homes.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy New Year, etc.

*After a few months of not logging in at all, I did recently sign on to Twitter and despite pinning a tweet saying I wouldn’t be looking at Twitter or DMs, I had several. I might log in again in a few months, but if you want a response sooner, feel free to e-mail.

**It’s definitely no sin for Andrew or anyone else not to be as pedantic about this stuff as I am, but I figure if I can’t be a pedant about Nielsen ratings data, what can I be a pedant about!? Also, again, 18 million is kind of a lot of homes.



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