October 5, 2011

The Sked: Factoids from Nielsen’s “Universe Estimates”

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Written by: Mitch Metcalf
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This season there are 289.7 million viewers living in 114.7 million TV households in the United States, as estimated by Nielsen.  If you believe these yearly estimates (and you must if you want to trust the ratings each morning), there are five million fewer people living in one million fewer homes than there were last season.  Don’t worry, you didn’t miss a natural disaster — this kind of an adjustment can happen as actual Census data is analyzed each decade.  It basically means the US population is not growing nearly as fast as estimated since the last Census in 2000. 

Yes, the nation is aging – but this is ridiculous.  We all know the population is aging, but nothing puts the transformation into more perspective than the table below with key demographic groups.  Check out the growth rate in the 50-64 group, as the Baby Boom works its way out of the back-end of the 18-49 segment.  CBS’s older-skewing programming strategy is looking better and better — if they can convince Madison Avenue to expand their demo targets.  Click “read more” to see the details.
              2011-12     Change
      Age    Population   vs Five
             (millionsYears Ago
      2-17      65.2      + 0.6%
     18-34      67.6      + 1.3%
     35-49      60.3      – 5.7% 
     50-64      57.2      +10.1%  
       65+      39.4      + 9.3%
     Total     289.7      + 2.2%
     18-49     127.9      – 2.1%
     25-54     120.7      – 1.5%
Diversity is real.  Nationally, over one-third of the population is an ethnic minority, with extraordinary growth rates (high double digits) for Hispanics and Asians.  Again, no surprise. But it is a curious footnote that the number of whites has declined almost 3% since 2006 (from over 194 million to under 189 million – there’s another missing five million people again).
Hispanics: 16.2% of population or 46.9 million (up 17% in five years)
African-Americans: 13.0% or 37.6 million (up 6%)
Asians: 5.6% or 16.2 million (up 19%)
How people get their TV.  For the first time, over 90% of the population gets their television signals through a wire or a dish.  Satellite is now in 30.0% of homes (up 7.4 percentage points in five years), while some form of wired cable is in 60.9% of TV homes (down 3.2 percentage points in five years).
But everyone doesn’t have a DVR…yet.  This season 43.3% of the population lives in a home with a DVR.  This has more than doubled in five years (20.2% had a DVR in 2006), but it doesn’t come close to “universal” penetration of things like DVD ownership (88.3% this season) or Internet access (82.0%). 
Yes, but there are people without Internet?  Strange as it may seem, there is a full 10% of the population that can be defined as Luddites.  This season 11.4% live in a home without a PC and another 6.6% have a PC that is not connected to the Internet.  And 9.6% of the population live in homes that still use rabbit ears or a rooftop antenna as there only means to watch television.  Well, we don’t have to worry about DVRs in these homes. 
What about the upscale audience?  About a quarter of the audience is defined by Nielsen as upscale: 25.8% of the population lives in homes with a combined yearly income of over $100,000 and 29.9% in a home headed by a college graduate.  Both figures are up versus five years ago — $100K+ is up 4.7 percentage points and college grad is up 2.5 points.  Either this recession is not happening, or there is a lot of denial out there. 
The American Dream.  The median household income of the television universe is $60,000 this season, while 70.1% live in a household with a car (and 25.6% live in a home with two cars), 68.6% live in an owned house, and 51.6% live in a household with someone under 18. 
The most important measurement.  My favorite household characteristic in the Nielsen TV Universe Estimates is pet ownership.  Almost half of all households now own a dog (47.1% this year, up from 42.3% in 2006), while cat ownership is on the decline (27.3% this year, down from 30.3%).
So let’s review.  Five million people have disappeared in one year.  Five million whites have vanished in five years. There are more upscale viewers despite the most bruising recession since World War II, and dogs are clearly winning their age-old struggle against cats.  The most important to thing to remember is that these Universe Estimates are what Nielsen says they are, and the ratings are the ratings.  Basically, there is no choice.  Both buyers (advertisers and advertising agencies) and sellers of time (networks) accept the ratings as the “currency” of the business, despite any inherent or transitory methodological flaws.
On a somber note, Arthur C. Nielsen, Jr. died Monday.  Son of the company founder and World War II vet, Nielsen was responsible for getting the research company into television measurement in 1950.  He spearheaded the early use of mainframe computers after seeing their use in the War as an officer in the Corps of Engineers.  Bill Carter of the New York Times has a fine obit.

About the Author

Mitch Metcalf
MITCH METCALF has been tracking every US film release of over 500 screens (over 2300 movies and counting) since the storied weekend of May 20, 1994, when Maverick and Beverly Hills Cop 3 inspired countless aficionados to devote their lives to the art of cinema. Prior to that, he studied Politics and Economics at Princeton in order to prepare for his dream of working in television. He has been Head of West Coast Research at ABC, then moved to NBC in 2000 and became Head of Scheduling for 11 years.