How Do TV Ratings Apply To Anime?

by Justin Sevakis,

Rachel asked:

Many Americans know that the Nielsen rating system determines which show stays on television and which show goes off the air. This is how many networks make or lose money. But not everyone knows that it doesn't just apply here in the United States it applies worldwide including Japan. My question is how does Japan apply the Nielsen ratings? Are they more strict than United States? And why?

That's not true exactly. Nielsen Company is the media research powerhouse that surveys audience members, keeps track of the demographics of who is watching what television programs (and when), and then deliver several reports detailing how many people they estimate have watched a particular program. The Nielsen Company actually does a ton of different media audience metrics and analysis (they also are the publishers of SoundScan and VideoScan sales tracking tools), but their TV ratings are by far their most famous product.

But Nielsen's research power doesn't extend beyond the USA, and every country has their own dominant analytics company that tries to keep track of who is watching what. Japan's is a company called Video Research Ltd. They have their own ratings system that works a little differently, but basically measures the same things: how many people are watching, their respective demographics, and what percentage of the total viewing audience they comprise.

The information is gathered by researchers pinpointing specific households by demographic, offering to pay them to track their viewing habits. Years ago this was done with a manual journal, but now electronic sensors will just pick up what's being viewed). Nielsen, and presumably Video Research, try to figure out new ways of tracking all of the new ways people watch television, but they've had a harder and harder time keeping up with technology, so there's a growing sense that these ratings don't paint a full picture. Most of these services offer viewership numbers that include viewings delayed by up to a week, but given all of the choices people have for entertainment these days, extrapolating what people are watching based on a small sample size is getting harder and harder to do accurately.

For most of the industry, a TV show lives or dies by its ratings. Higher ratings (especially within a desirable demographic, usually ages 18-34) means the network can charge more for advertising, since more people are watching. Poor ratings usually get a show cancelled, unless there's some other reason to keep it around (and with ratings dwindling across the board, the American TV networks are getting more and more creative about that). That's true of ratings worldwide.

As for how those ratings effect anime? Well, they are sort of a different beast. The only anime that really gets treated like a normal TV program is stuff like One Piece and Detective Conan (and Doraemon and Sazae-san), which are on during normal waking human hours. Those long-running "mainstream" shows are definitely dependent on having good ratings to stay on the air, although most of the income from those properties comes from merchandise. The longer the numbers both prove that people are watching, and that the sponsors are reaching the audience they want to reach, the longer they will keep funding production.

But these days most anime is shown late at night, during hours rented out by the producers, and the programs are shown as infomercials. For those timeslots, the TV networks don't really care how many people watch, since they get paid by the show producers no matter what. And since it's so late at night, most people are watching the show online, or using recording devices to time-delay the show to watch later. Any "live" TV ratings for these shows will be comically low, and a completely inaccurate assessment of who's watching.

As for the advertising that airs with these shows, most of it is just promos for other stuff made by the show's producers. Nice promotion, but essentially filler. Nobody's really making money from them. Since the airing is really just meant to advertise the home video release (where the money REALLY comes from), having low or high ratings doesn't really affect the producers much either. It's mostly just used as a metric to see how well the show is connecting with an audience.

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    Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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