July 16, 2012
Playing the MLB All-Star Game Television Ratings Game
Television ratings are a funny thing. The spin that can come out of the numbers can drive reports in wildly divergent directions. In sports, ratings can be spun to say that the popularity of a given league or club is high or low, depending on those feeding the information. Of course, leagues and clubs love to tout growth, while detractors can spin numbers negatively. For Major League Baseball, ratings have been used to show that the game’s popularity is on the rise, while others have pounded keys to say that it’s a “dying sport.”
So, which one is it? As is often the case in data analysis, the truth can lie in the middle. Before we get started, let’s give a quick primer on what the ratings numbers mean.
Nielsen ratings are a measurement put together by Nielsen Media Research seeking to measure the television audience size for programming in the United States. It does not cover Canada or other international markets where the programming might reach. While it’s the industry-standard, the system has its detractors. It’s not a wholly random sampling of U.S. television viewership. Nielsen picks a small number of viewers in comparison to all television households, and from there, extrapolates how many are viewing. Because of this, counts for communal viewing places like sports bars and college dorms are not factored into the numbers. Based on data provided by Nielsen (but no longer through their site, as the link off Wikipedia is now dead), “in 2009 of the 114,500,000 U.S. television households only 25,000 total American households (0.02183% of the total) participated in the Nielsen daily metered system.”
The system works like this: The numbers are split into two metrics that are joined together. One is the ratings number, the other denotes the “share.” An example would be this: 4.4 household rating/8 share. Nielsen presents this as 4.4 percent of all television households (in other words, homes that have TVs) tuning in to watch programming, while 8 percent of the people in the homes watched. This metric split makes sense: not all people in a household enjoy the same television programming. The other number that is often cited is total viewers, an indication of how many tuned in irrespective of percentage.
Was the 2012 All-Star Game a Ratings Hit or Miss?
So, this was good, right? That depends. First off, you’ll note that I said, “the morning after.” That’s because Nielsen releases what they call “fast overnight” numbers. This is before a complete analysis is finalized, which gets released later in the day.
As to that three percent increase, yes, it’s truly an uptick, but consider this: last year was the lowest rated MLB All-Star Game in history. When accounting for that, the game was the second-lowest rated ever by the overnight numbers.
When the final numbers were released, here’s what the All-Star Game pulled in: 6.8/12 with 7.8 million viewers. That is the lowest ASG rating number ever (last year was 6.9) and marks the seventh consecutive year that ratings have dropped. As for share, it ties with last year’s number. Total viewership was down 149,000 from last year—the lowest decline in the last decade. In the last ten years, just three All-Star Games have seen total increases, with 2003 marking the first after the infamous 2002 tie in Milwaukee. The last ratings increase was between 2005 and 2006 (up 1.2).
So, based on this, MLB is a dying sport, right? Not so fast.
For FOX, the question is, how did the network fare against its rivals? Did FOX win the ratings battle for the night? The answer is yes. While the ratings were the lowest ever, the game still won the night for FOX, posting numbers 7.7 percent higher than any other program, according to Nielsen’s numbers. In that, FOX is happy; ultimately, a network is looking to win as many days in a year as possible.
The Good Old Days
To say as much is not taking into account the dramatic change in television channel offerings, the explosion of the internet as a competing media platform, the computer gaming revolution, and other changes in society that compete for time. In 1970, there were just the “big three” over-the-air networks in ABC, CBS, and NBC. In larger markets you may have had a PBS affiliate and possibly a UHF channel offering, but that was it. As a modern day comparison, DirecTV currently offers more than 300 channels, and more than 100 of those are in HD.
To add, back then the NFL wasn’t nearly the media juggernaut that it is now. Pete Rozelle, the former commissioner of the NFL and the man most credited with making the NFL what it is today, got ABC to begin broadcasting Monday Night Football in (you guessed it) 1970. Rozelle, in addition to creating the Super Bowl, was the first to sell media rights to CBS and NBC, which fueled competition for media rights not only within the NFL, but with MLB as well.
The best way to view MLB’s place in history as it pertains to television viewership is to say that baseball held a collective consciousness over other sports that it does not enjoy today. That is a byproduct of the game but also of its long and storied history. When you realize that the National League was formed in 1876, the American League was formed in 1901, and the World Series began in 1903—67 years before the creation of the Super Bowl—you have a leg up on your competition in terms of recognition. The pace of society has changed as well. Baseball’s pace was far more accepting with a younger demographic than it was prior.
What to Make of It
Below are historical numbers for the MLB All-Star Game from 1967 to 2012 along with a graphical representation of ratings, share, and total viewers:
Source: Nielsen Media Research