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Reinventing the TV Rating System: How Community's Fans Battled the Nielsen Rating System

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Once upon a time, the Nielsen rating system mattered. Not any longer. What matters now is fans and buzz. What matters in the digital age is is tribes and Twitter.

It's been several decades since families gathered around a TV in the living room and watched shows together. When viewers had only NBC, CBS, and ABC, plus PBS to watch, the Nielsen Family rating system provided useful information to advertisers.

Fast forward to the digital future. In 2013, fans make the rules, not rating systems or media corporations. Between streaming media sites Netflix and Hulu, on-demand cable, and YouTube, viewers have an endless supply of viewing choices.

The NBC show Community is a great case in point. As Community's fourth season draws to a close, the possibility of a fifth season looks like a coin toss. The shows ratings are less than stellar, barely pushing past a million a week in the broadcast TV ruins of what once was NBC's "Must See TV" Thursday line-up.

While it's easy to dismiss Community as just another critic's darling that failed to connect to a mass audience, that doesn't paint an accurate picture. Not when you take mobile and streaming viewers into account. Community was the winner of online streaming giant Hulu's Best in Show of 2012, and TV Guide Magazine's second annual Fan Favorites winner. When asked to vote online and help keep their favorite show on the air, the fans of Community reached out on Twitter and Facebook to try and save a show they've claimed as their own.

This shows exactly why an outmoded rating system created in the early part of the 20th century isn't relevant in today's Internet driven world. And why now is the right time for one of the leading agencies in the emerging big data space to leap in and become the new Nielsen.

The old Nielsen Family system was already becoming a relic of a bygone era when VCRs and cable allowed viewers to pick from a much wider selection of entertainment choices. Now, it's not just outmoded, it's inaccurate. Nielsen numbers don't account for online streaming viewers, or fans that buy DVDs of a favorite show. The appeal to TV executives of hit shows like American Idol or live sports broadcasts like the Super Bowl is the immediacy factor. Streaming media and YouTube doesn't register with TV executives simply wanting the hard data on ad buys and eyeballs on the screen. But as we all know, first run commercials seen as cultural events are a rare commodity these days.

The Nielsen Company has had to adapt to the digital age, and understands how the outdated strategy of just counting people watching at home doesn't reflect 21st century viewing habits, especially with younger viewers, such as the engaged fans of Community. TV shows like the meta-layered Community point out the obvious flaws in the one-size-fits-all tracking methods of television advertising, and how viewers fall in love with shows that fall through the network's big data cracks.

So what is a hit show worth? And what is a cult hit show worth? Which viewers are following a program more intensely, and over time who'll spread the word about the show and buy the DVDs or go see the movie spin-off? What is it worth to dig deeper into the world of big data, and unearth the places where emotion, commerce, and art intersect?