If you’d like to be a TV critic-a cutthroat, high-risk, low-yield field not for the squeamish — you’ll be well-served by this primer in how television ratings are gathered. Can You Believe TV Ratings? — short answer: no! — tells you everything you’ve ever wanted to know, and a tedious lot more, about how the Nielsen Media Research company compiles the ratings that determine whether our favorite shows live long or die quick deaths.
Four thousand American homes are equipped with so-called people meters, in which families record their TV viewing. This edition of Nova also features interviews with industry heavyweights such as David Poltrack, senior vice president of research for CBS, who says, ”The whole business is crazy” — a probably accurate but vague comment typical of this show.
Can You Believe ultimately suggests that the major networks would probably do just as well to schedule programs on the basis of their instincts rather than the statistics of Nielsen ratings, but before it arrives at even so modest a point, the show has begun to drown in language like, ”A 2- or 3-point difference in multiset households, where the viewing is so much heavier, leverages the numbers quite a bit.” It is at that point that you might want to switch channels and drive up the ratings of some other, more frothy, show. C+