TV ratings are unfathomable to the vast majority of the viewing public -- what does a 1.6 in the demo mean? How much does online streaming actually count towards a show's success? What's a Nielsen box and why does it dictate which series get cancelled?
You'll be relieved to hear that even the people responsible for making your favorite TV shows don't really understand the vagaries of the ratings system, as demonstrated when The Hollywood Reporter assembled actresses Kerry Washington, Monica Potter, Elisabeth Moss, Connie Britton, Anna Gunn and Kate Mara for a wide-ranging conversation on their careers and the state of the industry as part of their pre-Emmy coverage.
When asked how often the topic of ratings comes up on set, "Mad Men's" Moss admitted, "I don't understand [ratings] ... 'a million [viewers]? That sounds like a lot! That's a lot of people!'"
Washington -- whose show, ABC's "Scandal," is one of the few ratings success stories of the 2012-2013 season -- joked that "It's like the electoral college, it's a strange, mathematical equation," but admitted, "Nobody's shielded from that, everybody stresses about it. Whether you're in craft service or lighting and grips, everybody's talking about it all the time."
Potter concurred, "On our show, when they say, 'oh, we got a 1.9,' I'm like, 'That's good, right?' I don't know what that means. 'Does that mean 1.9 million?' Because then I'm thinking 'well, that sucks' ... And then who really has those [Nielsen] boxes in their homes anymore?" (Reports range from 20,000 to 60,000 Nielsen families, designed to somehow represent the viewing habits of over 114 million television households in the United States.)
"That's what's so strange about it. Now they include DVR numbers, but that's new," Washington agreed. "I try not to pay attention to it."
Potter stars on NBC's "Parenthood," a long-standing bubble show that -- because of NBC's disastrous ratings across the board this season -- became one of the few sure bets for renewal this year. And although many agree that Nielsen ratings are outdated (despite finally beginning to adapt and measure online viewership) it remains the primary method of measuring ratings, for better or worse.
Catch Potter when "Parenthood" returns in the fall in its new timeslot -- Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET on NBC; watch Washington on "Scandal" when it returns to ABC this fall on Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET; and tune in to see Moss on the current sixth season of "Mad Men," Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on AMC.