A primer on how to actually support a Black TV show

Queen Sugar, Rutina Wesley

The Fall TV season is upon us, and as new series and seasons roll off the assembly line, rallying cries to support Blacks on TV won’t be far behind. But we can’t effectively support Black work if we don’t understand how the system works.

Not a year goes by that I don’t hear some falsehood about how to keep a Black show on the air. The most egregious of all is the misconception that somehow all of our TV watching habits are being monitored. That if we all watch, the networks will magically know just how many of us sat in front of our TVs to watch Issa make her most recent bad decision on Insecure. That is simply not true.

Television ratings, the scores each show is given that represent how many people watch a show on any given week, are based upon a small subset of viewers. The Nielsen company only monitors the viewing habits of a sampling of Americans that is meant to be representative of the entire country. Nielsen “families” either record their viewing activities in diaries or have meters on their televisions that track what they watch.

The Nielsen Company takes that data to calculate show ratings and share, commonly reported in x.x/xx notation. The first number represents the percentage of homes with a TV that watched a show. The second number represents the percentage of homes with a TV on that watched a program during the time slot. Nielsen can also report these numbers based on different demographics such as age, gender, and race, with age being the most important. Viewers in the 18-49 are the most sought after, and therefore, shows that attract more of those viewers can charge advertisers more. Which is the main determination for whether a show stays on air or not.

There is no specific cut off for determining “good” or “bad” ratings”. This system has been in place since 1950, and as television options have grown exponentially over time, the highest ratings for a single program have dropped from 61.6 into the low 12’s. Even if a show gets a “0” rating, that doesn’t mean no one is watching. The measurement method is just imperfect. But in either case, unless Nielsen has contacted you and you’ve agreed to submit your information to them, no one has any idea if you sat and watched Centric or CMT this week.

The same goes for your DVR usage and internet streaming. Since DVR ratings started getting factored into overall TV ratings, many people have thought that their actions were finally being tracked and counted. Some have also believed that when they stream an episode through YouTube of Hulu that those viewings get counted. Neither is true. Just like traditional TV ratings, only Nielsen household DVR or streaming usage is included in tabulating ratings.

If you want to show your love for How To Get Away With Murder or Queen Sugar or even Flip Or Flop: Fort Worth, here are the 3 ways to do it:

1. Twitter and other social media interactions

You may think that livetweeting your favorite shows is just a great way to enhance the experience, but it’s also a way for networks to see how engaged an audience is. Hashtags are an easy and free way to get a feel for how many people are watching a show live

Nielsen methods aren’t perfect. Tweeting about a show is a direct way to let the powers that be that you are an avid watcher, especially in cases of niche and genre shows where certain audience segments might be over-represented.

The same goes for liking a Facebook page, engaging on Instagram, or any other type of social engagement where you can tag or hashtag. Researchers sum and track that information to give context to the Nielsen ratings.

2. Streaming Services

The great thing about streaming services like Netflix and Hulu is that they don’t live and die by any external measurement system. They know how many subscribers that have and they know how many are watching each program. So rest easy knowing that just watching Chewing Gum or Luke Cage is enough. You’ve been counted.

3. Get others to do the same

Most important of all, do everything in numbers. The more unique users we have tweeting about Greenleaf the better. The more people we have streaming Dear White People the better. And of course, if you happen to know of anybody who might be a Nielsen family, make sure they know what the required viewing for the week is.

Photo credit: Oprah.com

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Daren W. Jackson

Daren is one half of the Water Cooler Convos team. He's a writer, music connoisseur, and comic book geek who spends his free time working on his novel and other short stories.