Monday, May 03, 2010

25 years ago in TV ratings PART 1: May 1985 Nielsens for animated shows in the weekday early fringe time period as reported by independent stations

I was looking through the June 26, 1985 issue of Variety Magazine when I came across some television ratings numbers. They were for the reporting period covering May of 1985 and they showed ratings for television shows in the top 100 markets in the US. This was awesome because fellow roboplastic historian (and perennial favorite among the collector community) Hooper X and I had been wondering about how good or bad the Transformers fared in terms of ratings during the the show's early seasons. I never expected to find more than ratings for the top ten shows in prime time listed in Variety (if I was lucky), so imagine my surprise when I found this report covered not just prime time but many other time slots as well. Obviously the most important slot to me was the late afternoon period when the cartoons aired and luckily that list had not just the top ten but extended out to the top 54. It was more than long enough to include ratings data on some of my favorites like Voltron, Tranzor-Z, Robotech, Transformers, G.I. Joe and He-Man. This ratings report was exactly what I was always looking for! Or was it? After doing some analysis of the numbers I realized there were some problems here. Problems like ratings existing for shows before they ever aired! But I'll get to that later. First I have to try to explain some of the terminology used on the chart, which is intimidating because I find the lexicon of television ratings scary and confusing. So in other words I hope with this post I will begin the most informative and in-depth television ratings breakdown for afternoon cartoons from 1985 (that makes absolutely no sense to me).

Early Fringe-It turns out the time I was most interested in was defined as "Early Fringe". This is the period Monday through Friday from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., which started about an hour after I got home from elementary school. It's when I remember doing the majority of my childhood cartoon watching.

Households Share/Rank-This is the number that matters the most as it determines where the show stands in relation to all the other shows in the same time period. I interpret it as the percentage of all households everywhere watching a given show and ranked accordingly. Rank is not necessarily proportional to the number of stations carrying a show because some stations may reach larger audiences than others, so a lot of stations may still not have as many households as one station in a large market.

DMA Shr-The Designated Market Area Share is the percentage of people watching in a region where all the people have the same shows available for them to watch. It's essentially how much of a market was watching each show but not reflective of total households everywhere. DMA will generally follow the same trend as household rank so as the number of households watching get lower DMA also gets lower, although two shows with identical DMA will have different household ranks. DMA is useful because in the chart DMAs from previous ratings periods are shown, giving a trend of viewership for each show.

HH Rtg-I suspect this is Households Rating and although I'm not sure, it may be a percentage of all households everywhere tuned in to a show. It's the most confusing number to me because it correlates with nothing else and fluctuates wildly, independent of ranking and DMA share.

May 84 / Nov 84 / Feb 85 Shares-These are the DMA ratings for each show from previous ratings periods. Great for establishing trends in viewership but also great for confusing me as some shows will have numbers here for periods that they weren't known to be on the air! I'll get into specifics as they pertain to individual shows.

Now let's look at the list of top 54 shows during Early Fringe in the 100 biggest television markets as reported for the ratings period of May 1985:

Households Shr/Rnk# of StationsProgramDMA ShrHH Rtg May '84 ShrNov '84 ShrFeb '85 Shr
25Love Boat145171515
38WKRP in Cincinnati147141214
473's Company146151315
627Diff'rent Strokes125111213
73New Newlywed Game12381012
Pvt Benjamin125111112
98Woody Woodpecker123121011
1021G.I Joe113111011

Here in the top ten we already have two syndicated cartoons-Woody Woodpecker and G.I. Joe. As someone who doesn't really understand the appeal of G.I. Joe I was really impressed that it ranked so high, beating out even He-Man. I have this (admittedly ridiculous) theory that the G.I. Joe toyline isn't actually popular with the public at large but it's instead a propaganda campaign subsidized by the US government and that's why it consistently sold well. Yet the numbers don't lie and it looks like G.I. Joe was genuinely a ratings winner and consistently popular in previous ratings periods. But how could that be? This all looks good until you realize that G.I. Joe didn't start airing daily episodes until September of 1985. How could there be May of '84 ratings when all that existed at that point was the 5 episode 1983 series? Isn't it odd that by May of '85 G.I. Joe only had a total of ten episodes apparently being rerun for two years and yet it still ranks number 10 in the ratings? The strangeness doesn't end there...

Households Shr/Rnk# of StationsProgramDMA ShrHH Rtg May '84 ShrNov '84 ShrFeb '85 Shr
1165He-Man MotU113131212
1214Little House o.t. Prairie114141211
1346Scooby Doo113141312
1521Brady Bunch10312910
173Hart to Hart105799
2010What's Happening104111111

Transformers comes in at #19 in the May ratings despite not beginning its Monday through Friday run until September! By May of '85 there were only 16 episodes of Transformers from the 1984 debut season. Were these being repeated daily? Again we have an instance of a cartoon with nowhere near the number of episodes necessary for syndication ranking high in the ratings. Even stranger is that there are DMA numbers for Transformers from May of 1984, a full four months before the first season began airing! How is this possible? Could it be that the four stations from which these ratings were reported carried the Transformers before any others in the US? Was the cartoon even ready to be aired in May of '84? I don't understand how any of this could make sense.

Households Shr/Rnk# of StationsProgramDMA ShrHH Rtg May '84 ShrNov '84 ShrFeb '85 Shr
2311Dukes of Hazzard94121111
2417Happy Days94999
2611Leave it to Beaver9310109
273Sanford & Son9487r8
2810Star Trek94101011
297Bosom Buddies84997
3010Bugs Bunny82779

Not much for fans of robots cartoons to talk about in the 20s except Heathcliff, which had that transforming car the Cadillac cats rode around in.

Households Shr/Rnk# of StationsProgramDMA ShrHH Rtg May '84 ShrNov '84 ShrFeb '85 Shr
318Gilligan's Island839910
3211Good Times841089
3311Laverne & Shirley849119
3415Mork & Mindy831099
354One Day At A Time8411910
3828Super Friends82111110
3917Tom & Jerry82111010

Robotech having May '85 ratings makes sense because it debuted in March of '85, but likewise it shouldn't have any ratings history from 1984! So where they're getting November and May '84 numbers is a mystery to me.

Voltron comes in surprisingly lower than I expected but thankfully it was around in daily syndication in 1984 so the previous year's numbers aren't as suspect. Still, it didn't start until September of '84 so I don't know how they could have DMAs for May. I expected Voltron to have stronger numbers after the ads I'd seen in Variety touting it as the number one new animated show of 1984. I thought it would be at the top of the list, or at least be higher ranked than G.I. Joe or He-Man. Then I realized it was all a matter of marketing spin on ratings numbers and I understood being the number one NEW animated show is different from being the number one animated show period.

Households Shr/Rnk# of StationsProgramDMA ShrHH Rtg May '84 ShrNov '84 ShrFeb '85 Shr
417Too Close For Comfort8410910
425Buck Rogers7312117
437Eight Is Enough7312107
443I Love Lucy72586
4541Inspector Gadget72888
474Andy Griffith Show62565
4815I Dream of Jeannie62666
493Anything For Money521179

Can't forget the most awesome transforming police car ever!

Households Shr/Rnk# of StationsProgramDMA ShrHH Rtg May '84 ShrNov '84 ShrFeb '85 Shr
Chips Patrol52876
5215Fat Albert51776
5325Tranzor Z52655
546Plastic Man41754

Rounding out the bottom of the bunch is Tranzor Z, who like many other shows fared better in other time slots outside of early fringe. In fact a lot of these shows aired at other times, further compounding the difficulty of creating a fair comparison of each show's relative popularity. This all remains very confusing to me. I am still totally stumped by how some shows have ratings from periods before they aired. Maybe the ratings are right and we don't know definitively when these shows first came out after all. Maybe there were test markets and other situations that IMDB and Wikipedia have no knowledge of. I wish these numbers would have been more cut and dried and simple to understand instead of confusing me more. But what I've presented here is at least a start and hopefully in the future I'll come across other ratings reports that can shed some light on the questions this one raised.


Hooper_X said...

RE: I wonder if the rating is for the time slot, not for the show. In May '85, that's the Transformers timeslot, but in '84 it was Heathcliff or Woody Woodpecker or Laverne & Shirley Join the Army or whatever.

Evil King Macrocranios said...

That's a really great idea. I didn't look at it from that angle and it's refreshing to have hope that it does make sense somehow.

I've been so stuck on a literal interpretation of the column titles that I haven't opened myself up to looking at all the alternatives.

Hooper_X said...

That's the only way it makes sense to me right now. Keep in mind that Nielsen is all self-reported, and if you're asking little kids what they're watching, you're liable to get some weird-ass results as well.

Hooper_X said...

FYI: I shot an email about this to Robert Seidman of TV By the Numbers, which is the go-to ratings site. Dunno if he'll reply, but it's worth a try.


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