Nielsen’s measurement prowess spans an array of sectors and categories, but TV measurement is what most consumers know us for, particularly in the U.S. After all, we’ve been measuring television audiences since 1950, and TV programming is just as vital to the American media diet as it was back then, if not more so.

Unlike back in 1950, the term “TV” today likely means different things to different people. But even though consumers have an array of platforms and content choices available at their fingertips, linear television—which delivers video programming through an over-the-air, satellite, cable or internet connection—remains a mainstay in U.S. households.

Understanding TV viewing behavior is critical for all parties in the media ecosystem. For example, media owners like broadcast stations, cable networks and other content producers need viewership information to determine who’s watching their programs to properly price their ad inventory and make critical programming decisions. On the flipside, agencies and advertisers need viewership information to determine where and when to best place their advertising, sponsorships and marketing dollars… That’s where measurement and ratings come into play.


Nielsen ratings tell media participants who was exposed to content and advertising. We use multiple metrics such as reach, frequency, averages and the well known ratings—the percentage of a specific population that was exposed to content and ads—to determine exposure. TV ratings provide insight into who’s watching which programs—valuable information for networks, content distributors, brands, ad buyers, ad agencies, etc.


To measure TV audiences and derive our viewing metrics (i.e., ratings, reach, frequency), we use proprietary electronic measuring devices and software to capture what content, network or station viewers are watching on each TV and digital devices in the homes of our Nielsen Families. In total, we measure hundreds of networks, hundreds of stations, thousands of programs and millions of viewers. In the U.S., electronic measuring devices and millions of cable/satellite boxes are used to provide local market-level viewing behaviors, enabling the media marketplace to gain a granular view of TV audiences.

nielsen ratings

Our measuring technology and devices capture which networks/stations viewers are tuned into on each television set in the home. Our meters and technology can also identify who is watching, as well as when, including time-shifted viewing—the viewing of recorded programming via DVR or video on demand. Nielsen also captures viewing that occurs on other screens, such as mobile, tablet, and computer—delivering to network clients a view of their total audience.

Chosen randomly through proven and rigorous techniques, Nielsen’s TV Families represent a cross-section of representative homes across the country and each local market. And unlike measurement that relies solely on big data sources, our measurement ensures representative coverage across demographics because our panels (which form the basis for our Nielsen Families) ensure that we capture person-level viewing behavior, not just set top box  level viewing. Being able to measure in a way that fairly represents all races, ages, ethnicities and behaviors is crucial for the industry to transact and analyze with confidence.

For additional information about the media landscape and how we measure it, visit our Ratings Academy.

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